LENS ON EDUCATION
Not by mainstream schools alone
Do alternative schools work? After all, every child has to ultimately face a society that puts a premium on
competitiveness and commodification. Or are alternatives only an option for children of parents from a certain
class of society?
13 October 2006 -
Ten-year-old Nazreen sits on the floor, immersed in an English-Hindi dictionary, her fingers furiously moving back and forth from 'artistic' to 'astonish' before triumphantly settling on the three-letter word that the teacher has scribbled on the blackboard: 'ask'. She turns the pages to find the other words they have been asked to look up in the dictionary 'meet', 'daughter', 'pea' and seems mildly surprised for some reason that 'pea' stands for the vegetable she knows as mutter. She asks someone for confirmation, but the other girls, their heads bent and their expressions studious, haven't been able to find the word yet. Nazreen, therefore, gets down to helping them instead.
A girl student at Bandhyali gets help from the teacher in finding words in the English-Hindi dictionary. Pic: Deepa A.
Nazreen and her friends are learning English at the voluntary organisation Digantar's Bandhyali school in Jaipur district, Rajasthan.
Including Bandhyali, Digantar runs four schools with 650 students and 23 teachers altogether. It would be misleading, however, to apply such generic terms as school and classroom to this learning initiative. For, there is very little that's school-like about Bandhyali. It stands in an open ground, a simple structure with a thatched roof and a neem tree to its centre, in whose shade children sit, writing in their notebooks, reading and chatting. Around it, almost in a circle, are the rooms where the children learn, each study group identified by lilting names brimming with beauty and promise, which the children themselves have chosen: Sitara or Bulbul or Jyoti.
The atmosphere at Bandhyali is relaxed and the children seem comfortable and at peace with their surroundings. Unlike their counterparts at what are called mainstream schools, their behaviour does not change in the presence of a teacher, who is treated more as a friend than as an authority figure. They do not lower their decibel levels just because a teacher has walked in, they make themselves comfortable on the floor where they sit and learn and they clarify their doubts with each other and the teacher. Most noticeably and refreshingly so there is no sense of fear among the children, either of provoking a teacher's anger or of punishment. As Nazreen, clad in a faded blue T-shirt and jeans, manages to explain in between deciding whether to trade the big fat dictionary she's holding for a smaller pocket-sized one, "I like this school because the teachers don't scream or shout at us. If we don't understand something, then they help us understand."
At Bandhyali, there are no traditional or established norms for teaching. Rohit Dhankar, Digantar's secretary, says, "We use theatre and toys, but there is no single way for teaching or learning. Any specific methodology can become binding. Our real objective is to encourage children, to see that the curriculum is connected to the child's interests." While this doesn't imply that the curriculum is decided only by this factor, it means that their interests serve as the starting point, so that the children can "explore whatever they want to do", says Dhankar.
It is this sense of exploration, of being on a journey of discovery and rediscovery, that is often missing in the quest for better progress reports and grades that define academics in most mainstream schools. Alternatives to this competitive world exist, many of them created because of the initiatives of parents who refused to put their children through what they had to endure an education system that they felt emphasised matter over mind, uniformity over uniqueness, the destination instead of the journey itself. These centres of learning stand like little islands of hope, encouraging the child to follow his or her dream over the din of the outside world, giving the word holistic an altogether new meaning.
But, do they work in the long-run, for every child has to ultimately face a society that puts a premium on competitiveness and commodification? Are alternatives an option that parents from only a certain class of society, specifically the well-off segments, can look at? Bandhyali, and the other schools that use innovative ways of learning and teaching, offer an answer to both the questions.
Why is an alternative necessary?
Dhankar lists several reasons why alternatives such as those offered by Digantar are essential today. He says, "My objection to the school system is that the engagement of the child with what they are learning is minimal. It is more in the nature of training there is no freedom for the child to explore, to do anything, to take their own lead." Moreover, "Education is seen in terms of economical development, as a way to get better jobs. An unexplored facet is the relationship of education with a good life and a desirable society. Another facet is how children can get their own understanding. What are the ways of creating knowledge and exploring it? Both are possible with a deeper engagement of the child's mind but the space for this encouragement in the curriculum is limited." At the four schools that Digantar runs (including Bandhyali), the attempt is to make a child independent in thought and action.
At Digantar, while children appear for the government exams in standard five and standard seven, only about 60 percent of the time is spent on the curriculum, with the rest of the time being utilised for crafts.
The day at Bandhyali begins with a morning assembly where children discuss their problems with the same ease with which they hold forth on current affairs or the main news in the papers. Abdul Gaffar, an academic programme coordinator at Digantar, calls it a
"democratic process" that encourages the children to speak their mind and resolve conflict through discussion. For instance, children
discuss such issues as teachers coming late during the assembly. "The teachers always tell the children to come on time, but if they are late for class themselves, the children immediately point it out. They tell the teachers that there shouldn't be any delay," says Gaffar.
Again, if the children feel that the school timings don't suit them, they don't hesitate to bring it up. In winter, for instance, the
children tell the teachers that as the weather is cold, the timings should be made more convenient for them.
The discussions they have in the assembly are central to their learning process as well. Gaffar says, "Every child can't learn in the
same way. We let children learn at their own speed."
Bandhyali caters mainly to children from poor communities in the neighbourhood, families who earn their livelihoods as gemstone polishers or construction workers. Most of the children are first-generation learners and the parents weren't interested in sending their children to Bandhyali initially. Some of them had already sent their wards to schools where even after four years they couldn't read or write. But after six months at Bandhyali, the parents could see that the children could read books and "they were surprised and pleased", says Gaffar.
Several thousands of miles away from Digantar, at Arasavanangkadu, a village in Tamilnadu, the Raghavans run their centre of learning, called Shikshayatan. The underlying philosophies at Shikshayatan and Bandhyali are similar: of valuing the uniqueness of each individual. Explains Aruna Raghavan, "Every human being is different and has to be taught to realise their potential and being true to himself or herself is the only way for this." The idea of Shikshayatan, she says, sprang from thoughts about her own experiences in school. "You wonder why you are being taught the same thing as everyone else. How can everybody be uniform? Each child has different capacities." For the Raghavans, who believe in finding the genius in each child, the inspiration came from the Mother of Aurobindo Ashram, who wrote about addressing each child differently.
Raghavan points that in schools, if a child isn't good at something, the tendency is to focus on the shortcomings. Attempts are made to improve him or her in that but rarely is praise given for something the child is good at. "There is no wholesome acceptance," she says. At Shikshayatan, where most of the 115 children are drawn from poor communities, with preferences being given to those with disabilities and girls, children can sit for the classes they are interested in. "There are so many books in our library if a child doesn't read, we read to him or her. If instead of maths, the child wants to sit in an art class, then that's fine. But if the child shows the slightest inclination in learning (say maths), then we insist on it," she explains.
Manju Shetty, a parent associated with Sloka, India's first Waldorf school run as a non-profit organisation, and also a teacher at the school, says she was drawn to the school because of its refreshing atmosphere, where the child would go to the class without complaining. "My older son was in boarding school and I saw how his classes went. There was so much stress on him regarding his studies. Here there was no pushing the child," she says. She put her second son, Tarun, in Sloka. Not only did he play and enjoy himself, but he also became imaginative and confident.
Learning all the way
In fact, parents are an integral part of the learning process. At Sloka, founder-trustee Nirmala Diaz emphasises that their first attempt is to make parents understand that teaching and learning is not exclusive parents and teachers are in it together, as are the students. Innovative methods are used so that children learn; for instance, house-building exercises in class one help children learn maths, while geography is taught in class four with maps and directions of sunrise and sunset. "The child is engaged and challenged and is motivated to do the best," says Diaz. There are no forms of conventional assessment; instead the attempt is to find how differently the teacher can work with the child. "The teachers assess themselves all the time. They also review classes to look at levels of learning based on certain parameters. If the child hasn't caught up, there are home visits, support from remedial teachers we look at the various ways in which we can help the child," says Diaz.
At Digantar, the organisation's own books are used in the initial stages. Later, several textbooks, including that of the National Council for Educational Research and Training and the state government, are made available to the children, says Gaffar. Dhankar adds that while children appear for the government exams in standard five and standard seven, only about 60 percent of the time is spent on the curriculum, with the rest of the time being utilised for crafts.
As the Digantar way of teaching encourages the children to think on their own and find solutions themselves, they are able to develop their own ideas, says Dhankar. "Twenty girls passed out from the eighth standard and are now preparing for the ninth standard [through the National Open School system] on their own. Our teachers do help them but mostly they study on their own," he says. The students who have moved to other schools from Digantar perform above average, even if they aren't at the top, adds Dhankar.
A few creases remain. The children who studied at Digantar often say they have problems with the teachers' attitudes in other schools. "Here they are used to pointing out wrongs, even on the part of teachers," says Gaffar. "But the environment is different in other schools. There, they get beaten for speaking up." Be that the case, only good can come out of children standing up for what they believe is right, Gaffar adds with a smile.
At Sloka, the children were initially slow in answering question papers as they were not used to the idea, admits Shetty. "They love to do practicals and projects, but we did manage," she says. "In terms of social behaviour, Sloka children are confident and well-grounded. They are also outspoken and honest."
At Shikshayatan, state board textbooks are used as a point of discussion but "there is no concept of finishing a certain part of the syllabus within a certain time", says Raghavan. Yet, these children perform well when they join other schools, she points out. "My daughter, now 18, was home-schooled and she is an established author, she is writing," adds Raghavan.
Indeed, Nirupama Raghavan, who translated Kalki's Parthiban Kanavu from Tamil to English when she was 15, feels her remarkable feat wouldn't have been possible had she been in a regular school as it involved taking a year off studies. "I have never been to school and my learning was within the family, my parents were in charge of reading and we discussed theories and concepts. There were no textbooks except for maths. For science and humanities, I read books, the writing of scientists instead of textbooks," she says. "I enjoyed the freedom to pursue a subject till I was finished with it."
Teachers play an integral role in shaping the child's perception about the school as well. At Digantar, Dhankar says that learning itself "requires a warm encouragement, a deeper sensitivity to the child's ways, of looking at the child's world that's usually missing". This sensitivity and understanding has to come from teachers. Little wonder then that what Digantar looks for in its teachers is an ability to listen and articulate.
At Shikshayatan, Raghavan tried to recruit girls from the community itself, many of who are denied an opportunity to study altogether. "Some of the teachers here are girls who have reached the twelfth standard, which means they have done really well. We tell them to learn further through correspondence," she says, adding that two factors she looks for in a teacher are "warmth and a warm smile".
That this is indeed an attribute that children look for in their teachers is clear from what Tarun, Shetty's second son who studies at Sloka, has to say. "My elder brother is never happy in his school, where the teachers shout. Here, even if we make mistakes, the teachers help us. There is no pressure," he points out.
Un-schooling and un-learning
Few progress cards measure creativity and imagination, one reason why some people are squeamish about the very idea of schooling. At Nilambur's Kumbham village, K B Jinan mentions the Kumbharan community traditionally potters who live here to illustrate his colourful disregard for education in its typical forms. Jinan, who has a post-graduation in design and who experimented with teaching before deciding teaching itself was the problem, worked along with the potters at Kumbham to create beautiful pottery items that are today found in posh hotels in metros. "I didn't give the people any training in pottery, yet they came up with beautiful designs," he says. The women in the community, who hadn't traditionally done pottery, were the most innovative, Jinan says, to highlight his belief that it's without an education that creativity thrives the most.
Jinan's beliefs arose from his own personal experiences; he studied engineering without attending classes and did a course in designing from the National Institute of Design, wondering at the same time about an education system that conditioned a child to "our ideas". "The sense of beauty* is taught," he says. "What is the meaning of authenticity, culture, originality? It is all colonised or conditioned." He points out that the visible elements of local culture include the way in which we make houses, prepare food, our music and other arts. "But all over the world, educated people think alike. There is mono-culturalisation of the mind in the name of education," he says. While it's in the nature of the child to interact and to invent, the typical classroom gives little opportunity for these possibilities. By setting pre-conditions for learning, by making a child scared of making mistakes, schools are reversing the natural process by which learning takes place, says Jinan.
Manish Jain of Shikshantar, which works for 'rethinking education and development' in Udaipur, calls his own institute a "centre for unlearning". "We look at creating authentic ways of learning and expression," he says. "There is no real learning happening in schools there is commodification and competitiveness. Schooling takes away the feeling that you can learn." Shikshantar, therefore, works with communities at various levels, organising programmes on organic farming, usage of medicinal plants, regenerating the Marwari language and theatre.
The Jains themselves didn't want to send their daughter to a school, a factor that motivated them to set up Shikshantar. Today, they hold workshops in schools Jain agrees this is a "subversive" exercise after which children learn to ask questions, which he describes as a "powerful form of disturbing the monotony". He also feels that picking up an alternative model of education for the child is seldom just that. It's also about adopting a new way of life, addressing lifestyle questions and making the necessary changes to ensure one isn't part of the rat race.