Modern education is all set to undergo one of the most radical overhauls in Finland, one of the leading educational hotspots in the world. The country plans to shift the focus away from individual subjects such as chemistry, physics and maths completely by 2020, to take a more topical approach, where students are taught broad phenomena. The students will still learn all the important scientific theories, but in an applied way that highlight the real importance of the matter. For example, a vocational course might offer ‘cafeteria services’, which would teach maths, languages and communication skills, The Independent reports. Interactive and collaborative learning are encouraged and the aim is to prepare ‘children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow’. We hope our government is listening, so that it can affect changes to our own education system that actually meet the needs of students today.
“I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less “showily.” Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself. . . . Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.”
— Anne Sullivan, teacher of Helen Keller
When it comes to our school years, we often forget in the heady haze of nostalgia, the tedium of homework, the droning on and on of teachers and the red marks on report cards – choosing to focus instead on the little pranks, the punishments for ‘talking in class’ and the walks of shame to the front of the class to read out the chit you were surreptitiously trying to pass across the class. If you take off the rose-tinted glasses momentarily though, chances are uncomfortable questions regarding the educational system we grew up in might emerge to leave you pondering upon a parallel universe, where it was okay to take so many extra hours understanding why the periodic table worked the way it did, while essay-writing was always a little treat.
It cannot be emphasised enough that children can experience the same schools very differently from each other – so what about creating learning experiences that are specially customised to his or her needs, aptitudes and natural inclinations? Do we really need to broach the extent of our imagination and tread into parallel universes to experience that?
The idea of alternative schools have always struck an immediate chord of interest, seeming so much more open and accepting of individuality, strengths and flaws included, and worked upon in tandem. The didactic method that a lot of us grew up with - trying to learn by rote text-heavy textbooks peppered with diagrams that were supposed to be engaging - doesn’t seem to have taken us very far. Even if every school doesn’t magically transform into an ‘alternative’ school overnight, a lot of their methods are refreshingly realistic with an emphasis on an applied education - and an underlying cognizance of the fact that children are little humans, not undersized robots to be led in a rigid waltz into a mechanical adulthood.
In conversation with Anasuya Menon, a Teach for India fellow, Homegrown zeroes in on some of the best ‘alternative’ schools in the country, whose books we could really do with taking a leaf out of, so to speak:
I. Tridha, Mumbai
”The Evolution in Education”
A little thing we discovered when we began research on this topic in the first place is that schools based on the Steiner philosophy of education are usually doing it right, being secular, co-educational and non-selective – and actually meaning it of course. Based on a more humanistic approach to learning, the school doesn’t believe that quick mugging and spewing will get you very far in life. Rather, they believe in holistic teaching which ensures that music and art layer more theoretical subjects like science and math to help children reach ‘a deeper understanding of relative concepts’. They then go on to provide them with daily hands-on experience and believe that ‘it’s an equation that’s clearly paying off’. At the end of their schooling, all students are geared towards the IGCSE examination, but their method of getting there is different to most others who are doing the same.
Homegrown Loves: The fact that children of both genders wear the exact same uniform – a short cotton kurta combined with their choice of trousers - as they believe that every child, regardless of any factor, is completely equal, a belief that they want to ingrain in their behaviour by inculcating it in every aspect of their being. They all perform and partake in classes including handwork, dance, music, gardening, cooking and carpentry regardless of gender too.
II. Shishuvan, Mumbai
”Keeping the onus of learning on the learner.”
That may sound like a daunting tagline, but the ethos of it is actually extremely progressive. The tendency today is to commodify education by making it ‘one size fits all’. But hundreds of serious thinkers, including one of the world’s leading speakers on education and creativity, Sir Ken Robinson, agree that every child is unique in their learning abilities. Forcing them to do things or learn in a way they cannot naturally grasp, often results in feelings of inadequacy and this is the primary flaw that Shishuvan aims to remove through their teaching.
They encourage natural curiosity and believe every child comes with a curriculum of their own. Additionally, they ensure socially relevant exposure to widen their contact with, and perception of, the world. “They’re also big believers in democracy,” says Anasuya. The children play a very active part in the process of the school; they vote and the inculcation of the entire democratic process is extremely strong to ensure that each child feels empowered. “I’ve noticed that their children have higher levels of self-confidence because of it.” This is particularly interesting because a wide variety of studies have shown this to be something that’s lacking in Indian students, a reflection of more generalised education. Additionally, they also ensure a good ratio of both low income and high income students.
Homegrown Loves: Their acceptance of individuality in all forms, made most clear when they admit that ‘the child is not always the learner, and the adult is not always the teacher.’ We also love how they instill a sense of empowerment from such a young age, an indispensable life skill.
We were taken aback when Anasuya included one of the most notoriously expensive (and hence, we had assumed, elitist) schools in Mumbai on her list but it would appear that there’s no question of taking their incredible resources for granted. Anasuya says “the model on which they function ensures a very high standard of expectation from their students as a result of which, the student work is among the best I’ve seen.” The teachers, too, are among the best-trained and their student to teacher ratio is no more than 5:1.
The facilities the students and faculty have access to are state-of-the-art with a campus-wide Wi-Fi network, 1-to-1 “bring your own device” laptop program in Grades 4-12 ensuring that students and teachers have access to the right tools all the time. They also have a beautiful amphitheatre library with a librarian who involves them in story-telling sessions; the importance of the skill is instilled early, based in the idea that leadership is inspiring others through story-telling, naturally making it an instant hit with us.
It’s Anasuya’s belief that the superintendent of a school has immense power and needs to be a great leader and that Craig Johnson plays this role for ASB perfectly. He is known to shape a truly impactful learning environment and this attitude, combined with their facilities, is an almost unbeatable combination in Anasuya’s eyes.
Homegrown Loves: The way they have blended top-notch technological access and innovation with their vision for excellence, to foster an environment that combines the best of both worlds, making it conducive for the all-round development of the children who are lucky enough to receive an education there.
IV. Anand Niketan, Nayee Taleem School, Sevagram, Wardha, Maharashtra
“The School with a History”
Located in Wardha, of the Vidarbha district, a district known for its high rate of farmer suicide, is a mostly Marathi-medium school but it includes English as one of its core subjects, making it technically bilingual. Having visited the school on more than one occasion, Anasuya believes that their Gandhian philosophy of education is extremely preparatory for real life and upholds a fantastic value system.
“When I went to visit, I loved that all the classes these kids were learning were interconnected and ultimately, lessons that were applicable in real life as well,” Anasuya tells us. “For example: first, they were learning to make 3D diagrams of geometric shapes, which they later went on to colour in during art class. When it comes to Maths – say they’re learning area and perimeter problems, they’ll go on to gardening where they’re learning to hoe and grow their own vegetables; they actually apply the area and perimeter they’ve learned to their own plots. In their cooking class, they weigh out the vegetables they’ve grown themselves and in their chemistry class, they’re learning how to make fertiliser themselves! You can’t compartmentalise in life and that really reflects in their education.”
In line with the Gandhian belief that the learning process ought to be integrated with life, the kids grow their own cotton, pick it, and weave their own thread in another class. The teachers are warm and accommodating, and learn and play alongside them. The three pillars of Gandhi’s pedagogy were its focus on the lifelong character of education, its social character and its form as a holistic process. For Gandhi, education is ‘the moral development of the person’, a process that is by default ‘lifelong’.
Gandhian schools following the Nai Taleem (New Education) school of thought are present all over India, with a large number in the state of Gujarat.
Homegrown Loves: Real talk? That their education system is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; the fact that the translation of theoretical to practical abilities they teach in their classrooms are skills that will ultimately be fundamental to their lives and livelihood.
V. Mirambika School, New Delhi
“We are not here to do what the others do. We are here to do what the other cannot do because they do not have the idea that it can be done.”
Based on the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the mother, Mirambika School is situated in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in New Delhi and was started off in 1981 as an experiment, much like the attempted Utopian society in Pondicherry today. In accordance with the philosophy, education is supposed to draw out the latent ‘divine perfection’ that already exists in the learner – their values are based on the belief that every individual is born into the world with an evolutionary purpose and they take it upon themselves to help the children come into their innate potential. We can’t help but wonder how it must be to grow up in a system that places so much value on individuality - because it sounds like something we could really get used to. Suffice to say, the school is an experiment no more – having established itself as an institute that differentiates between holistic and integral education, by a focus on ‘observing, doing and reflecting’ as opposed to didactic teaching. Plus, it’s become an educational institution for parents, and teachers from all over the world, as well.
Homegrown Loves: How sharply defined and focused their philosophy of education is, and how consciously it departs from being conventional and ‘square’. Besides seeking to educate ‘the body, the emotions and the intellect’, they also work towards making these instruments function in light of the psychic being, that they believe is the pivotal point of every human being.
VI. Isai Ambalam School, Auroville
“The education of a human being should begin at birth and continue throughout his life.”
Started by Aurovilleans for the local communities to produce a shift in the education space in the area, Outreach schools aim to create an emphasis on vocational courses for the locals. Located on the northern periphery of Auroville, Isai Ambalam School (Tamil for ‘Hall of Harmony’ or music), educates children up to Standard X, with 115 students (most of whom are drop-outs from other establishments and came from nearby villages) and 12 faculty members.
In all these methods the three cardinal principles of education enunciated by Sri Aurobindo are all intrinsically a part of the deal – education here is based on joy, freedom, self-learning and ownership of learning.
Anasuya tells us, “A really great exercise that they do with kindergarten kids here is one where they are all handed sheets of paper, and made to listen to music – they are then asked to draw shapes and patterns that they feel or associate with the music. They also have people from all over the world coming and conducting workshops for the kids.”
Improvisation and creativity clearly take centre stage here, and a separate learning programme for each student is designed, containing activities for the student to acquire development in various aspects.
Homegrown Loves: How cognizant the institution is for the need of the hour. Since a lot of the students here are first-generation school-going kids, multi-faceted methods of teaching are adapted and used to suit them. Plus they’re doing such a wonderful job of it that they are now gradually becoming a training-cum-resource base with reference to the removal of the learning difficulties encountered by these students, such as in acquiring language and maths skills and pursuing higher studies. Besides mental knowledge, a lot of psychological skills - ultimately life skills - like problem solving, creative and critical thinking and communication are imbibed.
VII. Ananya Trust, Karnataka
Ananya Trust traces its roots to a place in the outskirts of Bangalore, Karnataka, about 16 years ago, when a group of like-minded individuals convened under the aegis of Dr Shashi Rao to take a stand for the education of underprivileged street children. No textbooks, no curriculum and no exams – Ananya began teething as just a group of kids willing to learn and converse, meeting first in Dr Shashi Rao’s house and then in parks and other public places. With the team’s long-term goals for the kids taking clearer shape, they were at this pivotal point offered a farm as premises to teach the kids, providing a safe place away from the violence that they were often exposed at home. There’s been no looking back since then; today, the institution has touched the lives of 300 children so far, and is going strong with plans to further expand further. Currently, it houses close to about 60 students every year with a child staying for an average of 8 – 10 years. This year was a veritable milestone for the entire team, with a boy who has spent his growing years with Ananya graduating with a Bachelors of Commerce – a testament to the dedication and spirit of Dr Shashi Rao and co.
Homegrown Loves: The ‘applied education’ method which the kids have been taught, such as teaching subtraction while discussing a cricket match, or talking about the rain and flowers and leading in to basic science. This is how education can really make sense to kids, and stay with them.
VIII. Digantar Shiksha Evam Khelkud Samiti, Rajasthan
Alternative education for rural education finds a legacy at Digantar, located outside of Jaipur, Rajasthan, which has been working towards it since its establishment in 1978. Their philosophy believes that the purpose of education is to ‘make the child a self-motivated and independent learner’. Every child learns at his or her own pace (more time to understand chemistry!), and has individual goals, and the institute ensures that the teacher to student ratio is maintained in a way so as to provide each student with enough individual attention.
Digantar currently runs two schools on the outskirts of Jaipur and two projects entitled Shiksha Samarthan in Phagi block of Jaipur district and Centre for Teacher Knowledge in Jaipur, also developing curriculum material and running workshops for education workers.
Homegrown Loves: That Digantar also runs a programme for out-of-school adolescent girls called the Pehchan programme in Phagi block of Jaipur, which works towards improving the quality of education and school environment in government schools as well.
IX. Night schools in Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan
Located in a village near Ajmer, Barefoot College or the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) was founded by Bunker Roy, named one of the 50 environmentalists who could save the planet by the Guardian and one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine. 60-70% of children in rural areas can’t attend school during the day as they help their parents with essential activities like collecting firewood or drinking water, or tending to cattle. Barefoot College’s solar bridge school programmes have been changing the game since 1979 for education in rural areas by giving the kids a chance to come after their domestic chores were done, to a place where ‘collaborative classes inspire creative projects,’ after working hours. How’s that for fighting the odds?
The classroom environment created here is a tip of the hat to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophies and work ethic, with an emphasis on the fact that ‘simple, inexpensive solutions are more sustainable than the top down solutions proposed by outside experts that have little relevance to the daily lives of the rural poor’. The teachers, who are generally from local communities and have been trained at Barefoot College, teach through kinaesthetic or tactile learning methods – through actions, such as songs and games, as opposed to lectures - keeping in mind that the kids come to school at the end of a long day of arduous work.
The schools are lit up during school hours, powered through the solar-powered electrical system that has been built and implemented by women solar engineers known as the Solar Grandmothers. “Roy’s goal was to reach places where even the government couldn’t reach,” says Anasuya. “They create solar panels and implement their usage, which sometimes even electrical engineers can’t do. They acquire the technical know-how with just six months of training.”
Most solar bridge school attendees are girls, whose previous educational pursuits were either devalued or ignored entirely within the community - now equipped to thrive in a challenging and hands-on classroom environment, through the night curriculum.
Homegrown Loves: How culturally rich the curriculum is, with the students being exposed to complex but important concepts like law, politics and human rights at a young age, in addition to various cultural activities such as musicals, puppet shows and street plays. In 1993, Barefoot College broke new ground when they implemented Children’s Parliament (CP) to give the children a sense of being equal and responsible citizens of a democracy – the kids are in charge of programming and managing all the solar bridge schools. It is curious to observe the possible upsides of de-centralisation, where democracy has faltered in so many ways before.
X. Katha, Delhi
A learning centre that began in 1990 in the slums of Govindpuri, Delhi, with five children, The Katha Lab School now educates a whopping 8000 children in 71 Katha Schools in Delhi and in the tribal schools in Arunachal Pradesh. The students who were working to support their families when they joined, ‘have now gone to colleges and are earning more than many, many times what their families were earning in 1990’, when the average income, according to a government survey, was INR 600-800 per month, per family.
Story-based teaching steals the show in this self-constructed curriculum, and the resulting Vidduniya, a teaching framework, has brought up the attendance of students in Katha schools to 92%. The joy of education is something that is often overlooked in the frenzy to train for the rat race, a mistake that Katha sidesteps with ease.
Homegrown Loves: They focus on enjoyment – the kids learn how to enjoy learning at a very young age. Considering they have been retaining 90% of their students, an evident indication that the ‘learning by doing’ approach is bidding well for them. And finally, employment – through three professional schools and the English Academy, Katha equips the kids with a skill set that will see them through their lives, as ‘contributors to a globalising Indian economy’.
XI. Secmol, Ladakh
The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) has revolutionised the sphere of education of Ladakh with its reformative policies, since its establishment in 1988 at the hands of a group of young Ladakhis. Today, their activities are extremely varied and numerous – they run a campus (built with simple, low-cost traditional techniques) that is home to about 40 students and a few staff members in the village of Phey, about 18km from Leh, that is completely powered, and heated by, solar energy. SECMOL’s annual youth camps are massively popular, a meeting point for learning Ladakhi history and geography, English and the importance of solar energy and Ladakhi dances and games. SECMOL is open to volunteers, so if you’re looking for a couple of weeks teaching the kids, or training them in activities ranging from ice-skating and figure-skating to hockey, you should definitely check this out.
Homegrown Loves: That they are pushing for education that is more ‘locally relevant’. It cannot be emphasised enough that education is meaningless unless it can be applied in the lives of the students on a day-to-day basis. The campus in Phey, inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is also run by the students, in a democratic way that instills in the kids a sense of being a responsible citizen.
This school’s model does not exist in India yet but Anasuya waxed so eloquent about it that we couldn’t resist tossing it in for good luck, and as an aspiration to work towards perhaps, if any educators out there are reading this.
Founded in 1968, Sudberry Valley’s model is now being followed by about 35 schools scattered around the world, from Brazil and Belgium to Japan and the United States. Although there isn’t a school like this in India yet, we thought it definitely deserved an honourable mention, having evolved into a space where kids can grow up in an environment that really lets them pursue happiness at liberty, on their own terms. The heavyweight values that this model is rooted in include individual rights, equal opportunity and political democracy – which translates into the classroom in a highly unconventional way. Since their enrolment, regardless of their age, the students are given the freedom to use their time as they wish, and charting their own trails into adulthood (no chemistry ever!). It is easy to seem sceptical and lofty of this ‘new age nonsense’ – but get this: having had the chance to grow into their unique selves and able to hone their own directions, the kids grow up accountable for their actions, and are able to fit in just fine and work in a vibrant community with an unshackled mind.
“As soon you enter, you have a big board which is a like a menu card of educational options from which the kids can pick the activities they want to do on that day – whether it is reading, math or horse-riding; as a student, the child gets to choose how he or she wants to spend the day, from the onset. They event get to decide their own timings. Nobody runs after you to teach you, you have to ask if it’s reading and writing you want to learn,” says Anasuya. “The Sudberry Valley model also doesn’t believe in grade-level segregation, choosing to focus on social dynamics instead. Graduates have turned out to be really successful individuals, able to adjust and function in the ‘real world’ that the rest of us are used to, without any issues.”
Putting together this list, we were careful to try not to nurture any daydreams, especially taking into account the current state of education in the country. We can positively conclude, though, that even if the student’s individual requirements and aptitudes are taken into account in small ways, to begin with, during the planning of the curriculum - we’d be that much warmer to a truly democratised and functional education system that the youth of the country deserves.
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