Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Of Nai Talim and working with hands

The earlier post had mentioned a non-existent dichotomy between the academic and non-academic, and how the hand can be intellectual. At Samanvaya we have started looking more deeply into Nai Talim (New Education), an educational framework initiated and promoted by Gandhiji and coworkers and active until the late 1960s, under which "working with hands" is one of the primary principles. The following is a relevant extract of an interactive session that Mahatma Gandhi had with teacher trainees in Wardha on Nai Talim in 1939:

- From the Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi CD version

Before going to the meeting, a friend had asked him if the central idea behind the scheme was that teachers should not speak a word to the pupils that could not becorrelated to the takli.

Gandhiji, answering this question in the general meeting, remarked:
This is a libel on me. It is true I have said that all instruction must be linked with some basic craft. When you are imparting knowledge to a child of 7 or 10 through the medium of an industry, you should, to begin with, exclude all those subjects which cannot be linked with the craft. By doing so from day to day you will discover ways and means of linking with the craft many things which you had excluded in the beginning. You will save your own energy and the pupils’ if you follow this process of exclusion to begin with. We have today no books to go by, no precedents to guide us. Therefore we have to go slow. The main thing is that the teacher should retain his freshness of mind. If you come across something that you cannot correlate with the craft, do not fret over it and get disheartened. Leave it and go ahead with the subjects that you can correlate. Maybe another teacher will hit upon the right way and show how it can be correlated. And when you have pooled the experience of many, you will have books to guide you, so that the work of those who follow you will become easier.

How long, you will ask, are we to go on with this process of exclusion? My reply is, for the whole lifetime. At the end you will find that you have included many things that you had excluded at first, that practically all that was worth including has been included, and whatever you have been obliged to exclude till the end was something very superficial that deserved exclusion. This has been my experience of life. I would not have been able to do many things that I have done if I had not excluded an equal number. Our education has got to be revolutionized. The brain must be educated through the hand. If I were a poet, I could write poetry on the possibilities of the five fingers. Why should you think that the mind is everything and the hands and feet nothing? Those who do not train their hands, who go through the ordinary rut of education, lack ‘music’ in their life. All their faculties are not trained. Mere book knowledge does not interest the child so as to hold his attention fully.

The brain gets weary of mere words, and the child’s mind begins to wander. The hand does the things it ought not to do, the eye sees the things it ought not to see, the ear hears the things it ought not to hear, and they do not do, see, or hear, respectively, what they ought to. They are not taught to make the right choice and so their education often proves their ruin. An education which does not teach us to discriminate between good and bad, to assimilate the one and eschew the other is a misnomer.

Shrimati Asha Devi asked Gandhiji to explain to them how the mind could be trained through the hands.

The old idea was to add a handicraft to the ordinary curriculum of education followed in the schools. That is to say, the craft was to be taken in hand wholly separately from education. To me that seems a fatal mistake. The teacher must learn the craft and correlate his knowledge to the craft, so that he will impart all that knowledge to his pupils through the medium of the particular craft that he chooses.

Take the instance of spinning. Unless I know arithmetic I cannot report how many yards of yarn I have produced on the takli, or how many standard rounds it will make, or what is the count of the yarn that I have spun. I must learn figures to be able to do so, and I also must learn addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. In dealing with complicated sums I shall have to use symbols and so I get my algebra. Even here, I would insist on the use of Hindustani letters instead of Roman.

Take geometry next. What can be a better demonstration of a circle than the disc of the takli? I can teach all about circles in this way, without even mentioning the name of Euclid.

Again, you may ask how I can teach my child geography and history through spinning. Some time ago I came across a book called Cotton—The Story of Mankind. It thrilled me. It read like a romance. It began with the history of ancient times, how and when cotton was first grown, the stages of its development, the cotton trade between the different countries, and so on. As I mention the different countries to the child, I shall naturally tell him something about the history and geography of these countries. Under whose reign the different commercial treaties were signed during the different periods? Why has cotton to be imported by some countries and cloth by others? Why can every country not grow the cotton it requires? That will lead me into economics and elements of agriculture. I shall teach him to know the different varieties of cotton, in what kind of soil they grow, how to grow them, from where to get them, and so on. Thus takli-spinning leads me into the whole history of the East India Company, what brought them here, how they destroyed our spinning industry, how the economic motive that brought them to India led them later to entertain political aspirations, how it became a causative factor in the downfall of the Moguls and the Marathas, in the establishment of the English Raj, and then again in the awakening of the masses in our times. There is thus no end to the educative possibilities of this new scheme. And how much quicker the child will learn all that, without putting an unnecessary tax on his mind and memory.

Let me further elaborate the idea. Just as a biologist, in order to become a good biologist, must learn many other sciences besides biology, the basic education, if it is treated as a science, takes us into interminable channels of learning. To extend the example of the takli, a pupil teacher, who rivets his attention not merely on the mechanical process of spinning, which of course he must master, but on the spirit of the thing, will concentrate on the takli and its various aspects. He will ask himself why the takli is made out of a brass disc and has a steel spindle. The original takli had its disc made anyhow. The still more primitive takli consisted of a wooden spindle with a disc of slate or clay. The takli has been developed scientifically, and there is a reason for making the disc out of brass and the spindle out of steel. He must find out that reason. Then, the teacher must ask himself why the disc has that particular diameter, no more and no less. When he has solved these questions satisfactorily and has gone into the mathematics of the thing, your pupil becomes a good engineer. The takli becomes his Kamadhenu—the ‘Cow of plenty’. There is no limit to the possibilities of knowledge that can be imparted through this medium. It will be limited only by the energy and conviction with which you work. You have been here for three weeks. You will have spent them usefully if it has enabled you to take to this scheme seriously, so that you will say to yourself, ‘I shall either do or die.’ I am elaborating the instance of spinning because I know it. If I were a carpenter, I would teach my child all these things through carpentry, or through cardboard work if I were a worker in cardboard.

What we need is educationists with originality, fired with true zeal, who will think out from day to day what they are going to teach their pupils. The teacher cannot get this knowledge through musty volumes. He has to use his own faculties of observation and thinking and impart his knowledge to the children through his lips, with the help of a craft. This means a revolution in the method of teaching, a revolution in the teacher’s outlook. Up till now you have been guided by inspectors’ reports. You wanted to do what the inspector might like, so that you might get more money yet for your institutions or higher salaries for yourselves. But the new teacher will not care for all that. He will say, ‘I have done my duty by my pupil if I have made him a better man and in doing so I have used all my resources. That is enough for me.

Q. In training pupil teachers, would it not be better if they are first taught a craft separately and then given a sound exposition of the method of teaching through the medium of that craft? As it is, they are advised to imagine themselves to be of the age of 7 and relearn everything through a craft. In this way it will take them years before they can master the new technique and become competent teachers.

G. No, it would not take them years. Let us imagine that the teacher when he comes to me has a working knowledge of mathematics and history and other subjects. I teach him to make cardboard boxes or to spin. While he is at it I show him how he could have derived his knowledge of mathematics, history and geography through the particular craft. He thus learns how to link his knowledge to the craft. It should not take him long to do so. Take another instance. Suppose I go with my boy of 7 to a basic school. We both learn spinning and I get all my previous knowledge linked with spinning. To the boy it is all new. For the 70-year-old father it is all repetition but he will have his old knowledge in a new setting. He should not take more than a few weeks for the process. Thus, unless the teacher develops the receptivity and eagerness of the child of 7, he will end up by becoming a mere mechanical spinner, which would not fit him for the new method.

Q. A boy who has passed his matriculation can go to college if he wishes to. Will a child who has gone through the basic education syllabus too be able to do so?

G. Between the boy who has passed his matriculation and the boy who has gone through basic education, the latter will give a better account of himself because his faculties have been developed. He would not feel helpless when he goes to college as matriculates often do.

Q. Why should a child waste 7 years on learning a craft when his real profession is going to be something else, e.g., why should a banker’s son, who is expected to take to banking later on, learn spinning for 7 years?

G. The question betrays gross ignorance of the new scheme of education. The boy under the scheme of basic education does not go to school merely to learn a craft. He goes there to receive his primary education, to train his mind through the craft. I claim that the boy who has gone through the new course of primary education for seven years, will make a better banker than the one who has gone through the seven years of ordinary schooling. The latter when he goes to a banking school will be ill at ease because all his faculties will not have been trained. Prejudices die hard. I will have done a good day’s work if I have made you realize this one central fact that the new education scheme is not a little of literary education and a little of craft. It is full education up to the primary stage through the medium of a craft.

Q. Would it not be better to teach more than one craft in every school? The children might begin to feel bored of doing the same thing from month to month and year to year.

G. If I find a teacher who becomes dull to his students after a month’s spinning, I should dismiss him. There will be newness in every lesson such as there can be new music on the same instrument. By changing over from one craft to another a child tends to become like a monkey jumping from branch to branch with abode nowhere. But I have shown already in the course of our discussion that teaching spinning in a scientific spirit involves learning many things besides spinning. The child will be taught to make his own takli and his own winder soon. Therefore, to go back to what I began with, if the teacher takes up the craft in a scientific spirit, he will speak to his pupils through many channels, all of which will contribute to the development of all his faculties.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sensing Nature Through Arts - Summer Camp

“Sensing Nature Through Arts”
Summer Camp for children aged 8 – 12 years, 4th – 9th May 2009
A Review-Report

Kalakshetra Foundation and The Aseema Trust jointly conducted a six day summer camp, “Sensing nature through arts” for children aged 8 to 12 years. The camp activities were spinning and weaving on a frame, printing from nature and paper making, clay work, kolams and pot decoration, and kalamkari. There were also movies to watch and talk about. The camp was hosted in the quiet and natural environment of the Kalashetra Art centre. The vasanas and energy of the space were just right and suited for a camp-full of people trying to sense nature.

More than anything else, the beauty of the organisation of activities was in the qualities required for the minute hand work – silence, reflection, observation and a sense of aesthetics. In an urban set up we have moved too far away from doing useful work with hands, and the connection of hand work to mind and heart is seldom acknowledged. A dichotomy of academic (mind) and non-academic (hand) work that is non existent has been fed into our psyche, and we fail to see how the hand can be intellectual and emotional. And we have too soon forgotten that science begins with observation. And that man can come closer to the nature that he is part of only by first observing her closely.

The camp introduced and facilitated these qualities in a vibrant manner wherein the children discovered the same in themselves even as they were producing beautiful works of art.

They were learning to walk peacefully, carefully, observe, gather and categorise pieces of nature (leaves, flowers, twigs…) without disturbing her;
they were discovering the joy of being concentrated and focused in one activity unmindful of mild physical discomforts as they were working on their paintings and clay;
they were realising the usefulness of observation and precision;
they were experiencing the intangible pleasure of struggling and completing a creation of their own;
they were imagining, thinking, visualising, and also expressing their ideas through their work;
they were learning to be patient and perseverant in getting that thread just right through the loops;
they were strengthening ties of friendship and cooperation while helping and teaching each other,
they were discovering that being gentle is also being strong while modeling clay;
they were feeling the excitement of numbers as they were counting threads, measuring without the use of external aids, working with different sizes of clay models, teaching each other complicated kolam patterns;
they were experiencing a non-hierarchical, non-pressurised learning environment where learning is for learning’s sake;
they were learning to learn from nature, to mention a few.

Besides all this of course, they were picking up skills of spinning, weaving, threading, painting, clay modeling, braiding, paper making, kolam-drawing... They were also getting an understanding of different materials and their properties through experiential work with cloth, clay, paints, sand, water, stones and so on. We also had very interesting sessions of history, film appreciation, unorganised play, contemporary social issues and listening to music thrown in. We watched a movie on Khadi cloth and its making by Kanika Myers, extracts of a movie that revolved around school children in rural Karnataka and their discussions on caste discrimination, and Satyajit Ray’s movie titled, “The adventures of Goopy and Bhaga”.

An open session was planned for the last day when the children exhibited their work to their parents. There was also a potluck snacks party for the entire camp team including the faculty, volunteers, children and others. The children’s theatre on this day deserves special mention. The play by Shri. Velu Saravanan and his team was entrancing and very interactive. Judging by the laughter and complete involvement of the entire population in the hall, all of us were children for that duration. Set in the background of a fisherman’s child finding a pot with a genie inside while at sea, the team also kept asking some fundamental questions on what is knowledge and what is development through the course of the skit. This is very relevant since the success of the summer camp is not simply in it being conducted well, although it is a part too, but in the continued internalising and practice of these qualities in each of us who were a part of the camp.

A fitting finale was a running presentation of the delightful memories and moments of the camp captured digitally.

Priya Nagesh
May 16th 2009
Resource person at camp

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Seminar on Raising Happy and Peaceful children, 2nd May 2009

Seminar on Raising Happy and Peaceful children, 2nd May 2009

The theme for the seminar was “Raising Happy and Peaceful children”. Weighty indeed! Everyone in the group had to contend with these two questions, posed by one of the presenters – Can I make anyone happy? Or Can I make anyone unhappy? And I think we all in our own ways kept reaching the same conclusion from different points that children raise themselves; we can possibly move towards happy and peaceful, only by being happy and peaceful ourselves. There is no easier way. This was a refreshing direction to take, considering also that the seminar was held in Chennai, generally thought to be a conservative city that tends to take a straightjacketed view of education, schooling and learning.

The seminar was organised by Relief Foundation, who were also celebrating their completion of 10 years of work, and positioning this seminar as a consolidation of their learning. Congratulations to Smt. Vidya Shankar, the founder of Relief Foundation, and the entire team on their hard work and achievement. The seminar was an indication of the same.

A quality of the seminar which is to be appreciated is the diverse nature of the gathering. There were - - many parents, some homeschooling their children, others who have put them in the ‘alternative’ schools (as different from the conventional ones) in Chennai, and still others who are simply questioning the mainstream schooling system

- heads of alternative schools (Rukmini Ramachandran, Navadisha Montessori Institute; Sudha Mahesh, Head Start, Marlene Kamdar, Saraswathi Kendra Learning Centre, … )

- educationists (Ratnesh, Geniekids Bangalore; Clive and Suseela, Centre for Learning Bangalore, others…)

- teachers (from Riverside to share their experience, Vivekananda school, Chennai…)

- members from the NGO fraternity having grassroot work experience …

Of course, most participants would fall into more than one category.

The glaringly missing participants here in my opinion were children. Deriving from an understanding that perhaps each one of us is responsible for our happiness and peace, it makes complete sense that children make a part of a seminar on happy and peaceful children. Qualifying the age groups and so on can of course come in, but first we need to have a sense of flatness, non-hierarchy, which is completely missing in the Chennai psyche. The Chennai psyche must learn to relinquish control as parents in homes, as teachers in the classrooms, and as principals in schools, give up control and work at being gardeners, only watering and mulching, then see how the plants grow and flowers bloom. This is an issue that needs to be taken seriously by parents and educators looking at true and healthy processes of learning and education. However, it must also be said that there were many in the group who were truly thinking and enquiring, for children, and for learning.

The other group that was missing was the mainstream – i.e., teachers and parents from conventional schools; as Rukmini Ramachandran pointed out several times during her session that she was “preaching to the converted”. Even assuming that this was specifically for the converted, i.e. those who are already thinking of issues of peace and happiness in education and schooling, then a substantial part of the day should have been for discussing the Why’s and How’s of dealing with and bringing into practice some of these fundamental questions. The Riverside and Geniekids experiences were very enriching in this sense. For instance, in the group discussion session, one topic was on how to make the home a learning environment. Now in a ‘converted’ group, this theme would without doubt bring in a suggestion like spending more quality time with children. But that is obvious isn’t it? We would need to go deeper into an issue like that to ask fundamental questions like, what do we mean by spending more quality time with children, how do we do this considering that in a middle class Chennai environment, both parents work and their work schedules are tight, so does this mean the mother will need to stop working (which is mostly the case, although I know of one couple where the father stays in and the mother goes out to work)… So a deeper understanding of the issues, of our own assumptions and our minds will only be possible when we go into such details; the ‘How’ of things. But this does not mean giving clear-cut 10 or 15 or 30 steps to making the home a learning environment like one of the bestsellers, whatever that means. This means a deeper enquiry and discussion, which would lead to each unit (individual, family, couple etc) creating their own solutions and also arriving at a collective understanding perhaps.

The issues that were touched upon to start a process of dialogue and discussion were profound and significant. I say “start a process” because these are not issues that can have conclusions and solutions that can be neatly packaged and presented in workshops and conferences. One such was very succinctly and simply put by Clive Elwell, Centre for Learning, when at the end of the group discussion, he asked the question, “where is learning in all these discussions? Is there some learning that is for learning’s sake and not accumulated? … Where is happiness? There could be an enquiry and dialogue into this, but is there a formula for it?”

Some of the interesting discussions that came up during the day included:

- Whether current and advanced research into child psychology is included in all the educational frameworks being followed by the schools, and whether such inclusion is really necessary all the time and is it not that some of our understandings of child and human behaviour are well observed and time tested;

- Whether individual is for society or society is for the individual;

- The philosophy of Maria Montessori and related themes, including its similarity with Gandhian ideals and thought;

- The different facets of running a school and integrating some of the alternative perspectives and thoughts and

- The problematic of competition, exams, a competitive world and preparing to enter this world of competition, if at all.

This issue of competition was the most felt in the group and kept raising its head through out the day in different ways. An interesting way of looking at this was given by Rukmini Ramachandran. She said that “in this race to get into all the competitive exams and institutions, do we know how many wildlife photographers are there in the country today? Five! In a country of one billion we have 5 wildlife photographers.” In a country of unimaginable biodiversity and such opportunity in the domain of environmental and wildlife science, we have five wildlife photographers.

Sorrowfully, even many of the supposedly alternative people in the country have fallen victim to this issue. There is talk of all the best inputs, the best and free learning environments, the interesting and most creative teaching and learning aids so that they can face a safe and secure tomorrow. A SAFE AND SECURE TOMORROW? Does any one of us know what is going to come on us tomorrow? This evening? The only thing that is constant in this world is Change, and I am saying this in a completely practical and material sense. And we have enough evidence of this. How have career opportunities and necessary skillsets changed in the last 5 decades? Given this situation, what about the child of Today? What about the child of Now? Who am I as a parent today? Who am I as a parent now? How can any “combination of good academic skills blended with attitudes and values” make superheroes out of our children, if this moment I am ranting at them to finish a particular task on time? What they will take with them is the rant, and our own understanding of time. Rukmini Ramachandran touched upon this aspect of time beautifully in her presentation. We are living in a No-Time age. Listening to music, “No time!”. Visiting relatives, “No time!”. Reading a book that one has wanted to for long, “No time!”. What do we have time for? There is a sure connection between this perception of a “competitive world”, and the common understanding of Time, and we need to investigate that connection. If as parents and teachers, we can concentrate on the children of today, and ourselves as the parents and teachers of today – then we would all be better off as human beings and excel in any roles that we want to take on tomorrow. After all, today had been a tomorrow that we had been working towards some time in the past.

An important issue that was touched upon in my view, was that of the aspect of reality and idealism in general and the quality of goodness in particular. Many ideals were looked at during the presentation by Ratnesh of Geniekids including the questions on happiness, but not dug deeper due to lack of time. In his presentation he spoke about how a child must be allowed to see that he / she is special. The adults around him must create opportunities and instances for this, especially also when he may do something that the adult disapproves of. This understandably resulted in heated reaction and questioning by the audience. In the discussion it came about that perhaps there is a difference between intention and behaviour, and while we may approve or disapprove of the behaviour, we do not disapprove of either the doer (child) or his intention. And that this discrimination must be clear in our own behaviour to the child.

One response was that in reality people do not treat others as such, and so the child must learn to deal with reality. I would think that the whole purpose of an alternative is to challenge certain realities. And so to the extent that alternative perspectives challenge, say, consumerism, or abuse of environment etc, to that extent, alternative situations need to be created and practiced. Only then would we be presenting any challenge. I am sure it is obvious that to show to ourselves first that we can live on collective and limited resources without exploitation and towards preservation, practicing such methods like reducing plastic, reusing materials and recycling what can be recycled, makes sense. Similarly, that people do not discriminate between the doer and the action in reality does not justify saying that this must not be practiced in our educational process. It makes it all the more necessary to practice the opposite force. However, the danger lies in challenging without an understanding of human behaviour, i.e. why people do not discriminate between doer and action. If children see only the challenging nature of an alternative perspective without the requisite understanding that must be the base of such a challenge or at least the process that leads to such understanding, then there would be no empathy or sensitivity to the reality. And this is when learners who come out of alternative scenarios find it difficult to cope with mainstream perspectives and end up issuing empty challenges and labeled best as rebels, or worst as terrorists or trouble makers. This is what is happening today.

The other response to the above discussed case was to his suggestion that we must also not disapprove of his intention since the child’s intention is intrinsically positive. He used the word ‘positive’, I would like to substitute it with the word, ‘good’. So he said that for example, if the child jumps on the sofa, then let’s try to understand his good motive, which is – to have fun! Now the reaction to this was much more heated than the earlier one in that most of the participants could not digest taking the intentions of the child as good. Some of course tried to say, why not be neutral saying that it is neither positive nor negative. The discussion indicates the spirit of society in general – how afraid we are to have faith in the intrinsic good of others. It is difficult for us to simply take at face value that a person, be it adult or child, naturally only has goodness in him / her. And that any behaviour or action is because of other cobwebs that have hidden this goodness. How cynical we have become. How can I be happy or peaceful if I am all the time ascribing all the actions of my child or friend or neighbour to bad intentions? To think that it is on the very base of inherent human goodness that our entire country went on satyagraha and got political freedom. One of the primary principles of a satyagrahi was to see the intrinsic goodness of the other, including the British. It is a very sad fact, but what Clive Elwell said is true, “we are not living in a happy and peaceful society”. So then how are we going to raise happy and peaceful children? Can we be happy and peaceful ourselves? This discussion cannot end.

Priya Nagesh
5th May 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Harmony Centre for Learning

Announcing the Harmony centre for Little Learners - a space and process based on the philosophy of Nai Taleem (New or Basic Education), the educational framework and policy initiated and promoted by Mahatma Gandhi

priya nagesh

Facilitating Learning

This article was first written as an explorative, introductary write-up for further discussion in a seminar on Education in October 2002 and has been edited further in March 2009. It briefly looks at what is Education, the aims of education and means of achieving the same. - Priya, April 09

Man is a learning species. Education, or the process of learning is life long and does not fit into a stipulated period or station in life. That education is acquired only through "teaching" or school is a myth. The Latin root for the word education is educere, which means to "bring out what is latent". In modern dictionaries like the Webster's some of the given synonyms of education are culture, knowledge, guidance, learning and enlightenment. Obviously all these are life long processes.

Aims of Education
Understanding education as being of such practical nature, it's aim would be that children learn to live in harmony with their surroundings, to create, to view reality and make decisions and initiatives through their understanding, to work as part of the social order and to learn from and strengthen nature. The child will learn to deal with situations and respond in keeping with his culture and the traditions and knowledge-systems of his people, fearless of the consequences. She will learn, not for the purpose of collecting facts & figures (information) and getting preference in the job market, but for strengthening herself and being socially responsible (knowledge). It follows that she will learn to value kindness, compassion, patience etc and being of use to the society and community. In this process she and nature alone will be her 'teachers'. It follows automatically that the motto of such an educational process can only be Freedom and Strength, from within.

What are the means of achieving such education?
A child of 1 or 2, adventurously, boldly ventures out on his own to experiment with what he sees around him, unafraid of any opposition that he may find along the way. The explorer falls again and again, but is back with the same curiosity and enthusiasm with which he started. Learning is intrinsic to him, and he has not yet learned to fear failure. He has not yet learned to value the reward that he will be sure to get if he does something that adults commend; he is satisfied with his learning excursions. When after many trials, he places his wooden train just the way he wants on the grass, between the rocks, he knows he has "succeeded". He understands the "learning" too on his own, until school, parents interrupt this process and hasten it to a premature death (today). The children in whom it is not so easily stifled are the ones who may not get the high ranks, who are called "day dreaming" in the classroom, who make mischief and are forever being summoned to / punished in the principal's office.

The process of learning is organic / complete in itself; it cannot be splintered into many subjects isolated from each other, for reproduction in exams. 'Specialising' in a subject equips one with certain skills that may fetch remuneration. But knowledge is beyond accounting and laboratory skills. And knowledge cannot be 'taught' by 'teachers' in schools. The first step towards achieving the aims of education is understanding that we don't teach (as the word is understood today) the children (or anybody for that matter); teachers and schools are not the be-all and end-all of education. They are, and ought to see themselves, as only facilitators of learning.

Working within and without the present mainstream system
The present system of schooling (in India) is born out of, and immersed in the culture of education as it was established in early nineteenth century by the British government to serve their political needs. We seem to have forgotten that the history of our education system can be traced to much earlier times. Neither have we as a nation looked deeply and tried to understand what we have had and how it can be used today, nor have we radically initiated, experimented with original content, ideas and methods in a consistent manner. There are of course several efforts and initiatives across the country doing pioneering work with alternative education and schooling processes. There are also many individuals and groups working to bring in reforms and clean the system from within. We need these multi strategies in these complicated times. However, all these strategies have not yet been able to make a collective and vast enough impact to bring about fundamental and true changes at a national level. The alternative education movement and fraternity in India needs to think and work towards integrating their efforts, and forging a common bare minimum national education policy that will incorporate within itself a decentralised structure and flexible formulations for regional and institutional contexts, balancing out the dangers of standardization while still pursuing a togetherness.

Self schooling
Families may also choose to opt out of the current formal system of education. We already know that learning is a constant process, and we learn from what is within and around us. So our children could be "deschooled" or "homeschooled" (to borrow John Holt's term). I use the term 'self schooling' here, rather than 'self learning' since 'schooling' is associated with a certain organisation and structure; and similarly we may follow our own routine of doing things. It should be noted that routine does not mean mechanical or without thought. There are no set rules to this. Children and parents could together chart their own learning courses and activities, or organise learning sessions with other homeschooling families and so on. It is being innovative that matters here and importantly, building on the natural learning processes that would make the learning a self motivated, intense and interesting experience, taking it away from the humdrum and horror of schools. There is already an increasing community of homeschoolers in India, particularly from Bangalore and a few other cities including Chennai, and they can be contacted for assistance with mainstream integration options if so thought necessary. There are many possibilities for mainstream integration if desired, including taking up the National Open School exams. Currently there are no particular laws governing homeschooling, and it is a valid option today for families with the resources and time.

Learning Communities
Given the nature of learning, everyone is a learner. The teacher facilitates, and learns right along with the children. All in the family together explore and learn from each other.Here is the concept of a "learning society", a much discussed concept in modern communities in search of alternative lifestyles and perspectives today. A concept not very far from the traditional communities of India, which were 'learning communities' wherein knowledge was not simply bookish and all community members were stakeholders of knowledge and shared their knowledge with others and with the next generation. Here is the concept of a vibrant learning society functioning on the foundations of its strengths and facilitating learning.

Facilitate means to assist and smoothen the progress of something or somebody. Exams, textbooks and competition have only proved to be impeding the process of learning in most of the cases and do not contribute to a learning community.

Team-building IN Co-operation IN Confidence IN

Competition, as it is understood today, is an obstacle to learning, undermines the self-confidence and worth of the child, promotes individualism as against team or community spirit, cooperation and friendship. It fuels rivalry and discord. While this might well bolster the spirits of the few teachers' favourites in class, who are able to get the good ranks, and would get the ranks anyway, it damages the majority. While it does nothing towards the learning of any child in class, it aids in creating clear-cut distinctions and helps one set (small 'successful'-group) look down upon the other (large 'failure'-group), and the latter becoming resigned to it as part of life thereafter. More dangerous is that it further fosters false notions of success and achievement as those practiced by the small ‘successful’ group and incites all to aspire for the same no matter what their individual inclinations and talents are. Such a life-destructing view of competition continues into adult and work life, negating true understanding, promoting itself, teaching not to question the status quo and feeding the same competition values to the next generation through education. It is a self fulfilling prophecy that needs to be challenged. It is ironic that the Latin root of the word competition, competere, means "to seek with" or "strive together".

Satisfaction and Achievement
Exams are again related to the concept of competition, and contribute to it's boom. If you got good ranks, you are a success story, otherwise you are a failure; and being a failure is sin. This is not education and no learning happens in such a situation. A child does not need exams and tests to evaluate himself in the process of education; indeed may not need any kind of an evaluation mechanism when all that is necessary is learning. All that matters is that he learns; he will also recognise the learning himself. When a child completes a jigsaw puzzle, he knows that has "succeeded". Relevant and meaningful evaluation and performance assessments do come in an educational process but need to be evolved in participation with the learners and on the basis of empathy and context. Only then would it be a true evaluation of the learner and his or her learning and capacities.

It also needs to be understood that examinations and certificates are nothing but one way of entering the career and job world, and an obsolete way at that. Career options, occupational needs and skill sets are constantly changing in a fast changing, global and turbulent world, and requirements in job candidates also changing likewise. Just the exam grades without a more balanced personality and achievements or pursuits in lateral domains are no longer enough to do well in the job market today, if they ever were. There are as many ways as there are people, of entering the job market and charting one’s own path to occupational and material success.

Being NatureWorms and PeopleWorms instead of BookWorms
Textbooks are the greatest hindrance to learning, participation, dialogue, discussion and sharing in class. It narrows the options that the child has for learning, and consequently his imagination and innovation. He needs practical education more than theoretical knowledge, at least at the early stages. He needs to learn from nature, his fellow-beings and appreciate them. Following this, there ought to be no textbooks for children until the age of 10 or 12. He may of course pick up the reading habit on his own. But this is not to be made compulsory. Guides and textbooks may be published for the teachers, if necessary.

As we also very well know, textbooks may also be convenient tools used by 'privileged intellectuals' to present history and society as they please. We can do away with such presentations. It is also the dominant intellectual society’s imbalanced preoccupation with academics that tries to impose the notion that academic excellence is the only excellence, or superior to all other. This is not to decry 'intellectuals' and those who have achieved academic excellence. Society needs them just as it needs all other kinds of excellences. God be with them but fixation on academic achievement as the only means to societal approval, and the only type of higher education has lived to its full and needs to be expended from our psyche.

Nature's Tools
Gandhiji said that "they (ancestors) saw that our real happiness and health consisted in a proper use of our hands and feet." (Hind Swaraj) and advocated working with our hands and feet. He promoted the learning of a craft by all children in schools, and this would also be a means of supporting the school. In his educational experiments and the educational policy that he initiated and promoted, Nai Taleem (New Education), he advocated not only active work with crafts from very young age, but also that after the age of 12 or so, the child should take up a livelihood / vocational skill, which would definitely lead him / her towards many more learning paths. In learning a craft, she is also able to cultivate observation, patience, precision, experimentation etc besides also the satisfaction of creating with her hands and design. In the process of acquiring a vocational skill like carpentry or pottery, she not only channelises her energy towards productive activity, but also learns to respect and value labour. This is so very necessary to challenge the obsession with academics, and to fulfill the creative urge inherent in every human being. In the current scenario, learning and / or teaching methodologies should be able to incorporate learning a craft / working with hands / taking up a vocational skill or interest etc in curriculums and utilise the same as a medium for subject teaching, if they so require.

Public Work
It needs to be acknowledged and accepted that education is for a happy and meaningful life, in its entirety, which includes individual and social transformation. An individual does contribute to social well or ill being by his or her decisions and actions (or non-actions), whether he / she accepts it or not. An educational process should facilitate this awareness and help the individual take charge of her life and understand his / her role in society. The child from an early age should learn to value social responsibility and take active interest in what is happening around him, which would culminate in him participating responsibly in community initiatives and issues as he grows older. Community activities and programmes should be organised wherein children can be involved, like cleaning the neighbourhood, zero waste management and tank restoration projects and cultural programmes. He learns to interact with co-workers, elders and others in the community, and work harmoniously towards a common goal.

Small is Beautiful

In his book "Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered", Schumacher asked for human-scale and appropriate solutions. He talked of an economics "from the heart rather than the bottom line" and of "smaller working units, co-operative ownership, and regional workplaces using local labor and resources". We need to talk decentralisation, and work at solutions that would involve the community in the learning process. The village (neighbourhood) schools have to come back, minus the expensive, unnecessary paraphernalia that is now so much a part of the education system, and which our people can ill afford. Such neighbourhood schools nourished and sustained by the neighbourhood community and resources, and catering to the neighbourhood would be able to create vibrant networks of people and institutions around themselves that would support the learners and lend them wings once they finish their formal education in the school.

Looking Back, or Looking Forward?

India had "the legend of 1,00,000 schools" and a school flourishing in every village. How we managed this, Dharampalji has explained "the vast system of education was made feasible by the sophisticated operative fiscal arrangements of the pre-British Indian polity...substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes." ("The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century") It is time to look beyond the factory school, which is after all not more than 200 years old, and find out how the world brought into being some of the most brilliant musicians, thinkers, writers, scientists, architects, composers, mathematicians etc in the many 200 years before.

In the words of J.C. Kumarappa, "University education can go overboard for a time without damaging the nation. As it is we are top-heavy, we have many more graduates than we need. These have also created a problem of unemployment as they are not the products of the type of education that we need." ("Economy of Permanence") We need new, original ways of looking at education, it's purpose, aims and methods of it, and based on this evolve our educational processes and build educational institutions, school and higher learning.


"By challenging the well established notion that there are certain time-honoured, proven rules capable of guiding us when we want to prepare a curriculum for the education of children, I wish to emphasise that there is no escape from reflecting on the conditions prevalent in society and culture, if we want to design defensible curriculum… By taking shelter in the ‘received’ perspective… we merely shun our responsibility and allow ourselves to be governed by choices made long ago or elsewhere under very different circumstances. ... Education deals with knowledge in a rather limited context, which is defined by the social reality of a particular period of history and locale" - Prof. Krishnakumar, Director, NCERT, in his book "What is Worth Teaching"

priya nagesh, April 2009

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Breeding Contempt in Educational Institutions!?

The following is an extract from an article by the Rajya Sabha member and daughter of the CM, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. She raises an important point about the management of schools placing restrictions on the students to practice their religious beliefs. It is significant that someone from the Dravidian Political movement is raising this question too. I think this is worth discussing. 

Recently, someone had similarly mentioned about Roman Catholic educations institutions across the  country shutting down to protest against the Orissa violence against Christians. In Chennai many educational institutions had sent their students on a rainy day to stand as a 'human chain' to protest against the violence on Tamils in Sri Lanka. The kind of religious, idealogical and other sectarian ideas of the mangement being brought to bear upon the students are rather high. Do the students have a choice?

source: Breeding Contemp, a Deliberate Choice by Kanimozhi Karunanidhi in the HINDU dated 10th Dec 2008

Today (December 9) is Bakrid, an important festival for Muslims. And this country has a reasonably large population of Muslims who celebrate that festival. There is a sizeable number of educational institutions run privately that decide to work on this day — institutions whose founders claim to subscribe to other religious beliefs. A few days ago, in a particular school, when the teacher announced a project work for this day, a Muslim student expressed his inability to attend school on that day. She answers him, in a matter-of-fact manner: “Students who do not come to school on that day can consider themselves as failed.”

This would look like a minor incident. But ask the child. I can imagine the anger, the fear, the sense of being excluded, that moment would have created in the mind of the child. When the teacher spoke to him thus, did he feel he was queer? That he was different from the 50-odd students in the class? Will he search for answers when he gets out of school? I can cite many such examples of exclusion and the communal politics that leads to a few more — or fewer — red letters in a school calendar. These attitudes are reflected in many layers and levels.

This is not to blame any particular group or to say the others are all blameless. The others might have different versions of such stories to share. There are many such institutions that play similar games in the name of religion and end up sowing the seeds of hatred and divisiveness in the minds of children. The world today would like to claim that education, the evolution of civilisation, and the experience of wars has brought humanity to understand that people are more important — than even the state. But what we think will lead our next generation to enlightenment, tolerance and peace today, our educational institutions, are turning into production houses of intolerance and hatred. Schools discriminate in terms of the income of parents, on the lines of gender, and sometimes even on the lines of caste, religion and language. However ridiculous and unreal — bordering on the surreal, it may sound — often even on the lines of eating habits.

Some schools, under the excuse of religious sentiments or spiritual beliefs, do not allow children to bring or eat the food of their choice inside the school premises. These rules are often unwritten but enforced. Staff members routinely reprimand students who fail to abide by the unwritten codes. Emboldened by the act of those in authority, other students ostracise those who do not conform. What happens when these children leave school and face people of different belief systems and habits when they start their own lives? Where does it leave them in terms of tolerance if we, under the pretext of protecting them or being sensitive to a particular section, alienate them from experiencing the diversity? If we isolate them from exposure to other cultures or thought processes or faiths — as is being done in many places now — we have to prepare to reap the whirlwind.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

PaataShaala Guest Lecture I - Nai Talim

PaataShaala Guest Lecture – Nai Talim, by Shiv Dutt Mishra, Nai Talim Samiti

Date: 2nd September 2008

Prof. Swaminathan, retired IIT Delhi Professor, Historian
Balakailasam, Director
Sashikant, Director
Arvind, Professor
Rajsri, Teacher, Sevagram
Ravitha Bhatia, Teacher
Uday Meghani, Activist / Social worker
Chitra Nagesh, Freelance Researcher
Krishnan, Graphic Designer / Activist
Ranjith Henry, Kolam
Balakrishnan, Centre for Women’s Development
Bhuvana, Parent
Ram, Samanvaya
Priya, Samanvaya

A summary of Shri. Shiv Dutt Mishra’s Talk in First person
Let’s take the phrase Nai Talim – “Nai” means new and Talim, which is an Urdu word, means “Education”. On October 22nd 1937 there was a conference in Wardha on education, which was when it was formulated this way, but it was not a new concept that came up that day. Gandhiji started his experiments with education, beginning from his own children, and many years of such experiments came to be called as Nai Talim.

There are 3 basic questions – Why education? What education? And how education?, which have to be answered by any educationist. In his experiments, Gandhiji was very clear that he will work for an education that will not make the person, a servant. Perhaps, he becomes a servant of livelihood, which is a very small part of his entire life. This is not education.

We see today also that education is imparted only for examinations. Those who have an array of educational titles still do not have jobs and those who have little education are still able to support their families. How is this? So, all of the hungama of conventional education, particular syllabus, exams and whatnot are not going to give a person knowledge, practical or otherwise. Even a Ph.D or an M.Sc would not have the confidence or time to teach his own children, he will send them to school! We all know the shortcomings of the mainstream education system that we have and let us not go into it further.

One of the core ideas of Nai Talim is that, education is child-centric, correlated to the swabhava of the child, particularly the Basic and Primary education. The child is not burdened with the idea of learning and education. For instance, modern neurologists say that any child cannot concentrate beyond 15 minutes on one thing, so then we have to make things interesting and fun, maybe bring in change every 15 minutes. Making a child sit in one place and asking him or her to listen or write etc for 40-45 minutes is violence. The child’s nature is to do, create, explore. If we convert the idea of discipline, that listening to the “Do it!” or “Don’t do that!” orders of the teacher is discipline then we won’t get very far with the child’s education. We will only create servants, which is what the whole system is anyway geared to do. Gandhiji was experimenting and designing an education process to make masters, not servants!

Knowledge in organised education has to be connected to reality. In Nai Talim, we say that knowledge is to be imparted through the medium of craft or through real activity and real experience. That which is connected to real life and meaningful work is true education, not by models and projects. Even calling it “learning by doing” would be diluting it. It is not structured and bookish knowledge as is the case with conventional system. Bookish knowledge would cut them off from real life.

The two basic principles of Nai Talim are that 1) whatever education is imparted, should be with the help of some creative / productive craft of that area / region, i.e. craft is the medium (not that they are all going to go out into the world and only practice that craft for their livelihood) and 2) whatever is earned out of such craft would take care of the current expenditure of the school. Reading and writing is one medium of imparting knowledge, craft is another. Gandhiji used to say, and today it is well known, that children should not be started on writing straight away. We should start with sound, and reading aided by pictures, and then gradually script. These methods of teaching are connected to how children learn first through their senses – the first is by touch, he knows his mother by her touch first. Then come sight and sound. Then at one stage they want to taste each and every thing they come across. It is after going through such stages in their development do we need to reach reading and writing. And time is required for everything. There is a certain time by which the coordination between fingers, eyes and mind happens for writing. Every child needs her own time and space to go through this. But today, we all want our children to learn everything quickly. If we go with the child according to his or her swabhava, then we will see that they all learn ‘quickly’. For instance, for children everything is play – this is in their swabhava. For them there is no difference between study or work and play. They learn through play. So if we understand this and remove the divisions in our teaching between study and play time, then we will help along the child in his learning. Take for instance, how the child learns script. For a small child, even the letters are pictures. So if we go by what the child sees and understands from the real world, then we should start with simply getting them to understanding words and their meaning first. And then, with time, break them down into letters / alphabets. In all this, the attitude of the teacher should be that of a mother. First comes love, then everything else.

This teaching should be for real life, for through out their life, not just a part of it. For instance, why do we separate subjects? History can be taught through geography or vice versa. Language is taught in and through every other subject. So we should be aware of this and not isolate language teaching to one class and not bother about it during other subjects. And at the primary level, the child is coming in contact with more and more in the outside world. So our teaching must correlate with his engagement with every day life and world. Whether we want it or not, children are learning all the time, and outside the class room, from everywhere. Then, better to understand and integrate all that too, so that they can make better sense of their world. In this situation, it becomes important that our schools are connected to reality, which means they can help the children understand societal problems and issues of the neighbourhood. This is being connected to the real world. They should be helped to understand society and its culture and their identity in it.

Today, we find that those who have the knowledge of science and theory do not know to work on ground, practically. And those who are actually working with a tool or machine, may not be aware of the science behind it. We have separated and isolated them. Gandhiji in his education process wanted to join the two, and provide an education that will allow the child to explore and express his inherent qualities and grow to their full potential and become ‘Masters’. An integrated understanding such that every child / person as he grows up can think independently, take initiative, be confident and solve problems. Then the problems of the locality and country will automatically get solutions. If we are living in this city and country, then we take responsibility for it, and this starts with the family and school.

Understanding phenomena is the basic thing. And there are so many methods of understanding. Not just one way. It cannot be that there is only one right way. The education process must be such that the child also recognises this type of responsibility and values within herself. They are taught not through textbooks but by observation and doing and routine work. We do not need a whole lot of material for this. We don’t need costly instruments and equipments. If it is to be real life teaching, then the real world materials are the materials of education also. Children also recognise and relate to material that they find in their real life instinctively. Correlation and integration is easier this way. One way to see their learning is to listen to them – they repeat whatever they have learnt and find interesting. The child must be able to talk about their learning process to their parents.

In answer to the question, why did the Nai Talim school close in 1974, Shri. Shiv Dutt spoke about the equations between the Nai Talim Samiti and the Sarva Seva Sangh, and that ultimately it closed due to lack of teachers.

During a discussion on higher education and the Sevagram Vishwa Vidyalaya, Shiv Dutt spoke about how in Nai Talim, whatever is taught in the conventional system can be completed by the students in 8 years. He further added that if the children do not learn certain things going the Nai Talim that they may have learnt in the conventional system, then he is confident that they don’t need those things in their life since Nai Talim is for real life!

Ram, Samanvaya said that there are many schools that have been started by picking up and adapting ideas from Gandhi and Nai Talim. He described a school that had existed just outside Chennai, and that the old woman who had been running it said that she has been doing so along Gandhian lines. She has heard Gandhiji only once and visited Sevagram a few times. He went on to say that however that such an institution exists is not known even to Gandhians in Chennai. His question was whether there has been any attempt to get to know such people who have been inspired by Gandhiji’s ideas and started educational ventures, since this would give us a picture of how these ideas have spread. His concern was that we should not fall into the rut of centralised thinking that Nai Talim can only be in Sevagram and others must follow suit.

Shiv Dutt in answer said that Nai Talim is not a method and that it must be taken in spirit and adaptations will obviously have come. He added that with poor understanding we will just try to correlate and do things absolutely by the letter and that wont work. He stated that innovation, which also implies adaptation, will only work. He further emphasised that the point is that knowledge must be related to real life and inter-relation must happen, then only will real understanding take place and our children will really think. What the student understands is a lesson for the teacher; it is his responsibility to create an environment where leaning happens – he or she is a facilitator.

Another question that came up was that since Nai Talim as a concept is for the age group 7 – 14, what of children before the age of 7. In answer Shiv Dutt said that largely principles of Nai Talim with regard to child and learning will be the same way. He further said that in that age group, they are learning how the outside world works and learning to interact with it and we have to help them in this process.

There was a discussion on whether there is material online on Nai Talim. However it was realised that at the moment there is no comprehensive material. Much of the material is with the Multiversity group and volunteers are needed to upload the material onto the web.
Shiv Dutt Mishra has been associated with the Nai Taleem Samiti and the Sevagram Ashram for almost a decade. He has authored two books in Hindi, on the concepts and practice of Nai Taleem idea and its spread and variations. He has also been a close aide of Shri. Dharampal in the last 5 years of Dharampalji's life, working closely with him in particular in his Hindi writings. Academically he is trained in economics and law and is a student of Allahabad University.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

ABL - How's and What's - 12 January 2008

Participants: Vijaya, Alexander, Ranjan De, Amukta Mahapatra, Dr. L.S. Saraswathi, Reineke, Melinda, Subha, Atmapraana Amba, Nishkaamya Praana, Nidosha Praana, Ram, Priya

Note: Amukta joined the Paatashaala session to talk about how ABL works, the philosophy and methods of ABL and how they developed it.

A summary of Ms. Amukta Mahapatra’s talk and discussions
Amukta started the discussion by saying that why ABL was conceptualised and introduced is more important than the genesis itself. The problems that were identified by the government were many and ABL came as one way to tackle some of these problems.

The primary problems were that children were not learning and there was only a one point source of teaching – the teacher. In the class room the children were just obedient or not; nothing else defined them within the classroom – many problems were identified with the classroom processes. ABL was introduced as the solution and it has achieved a couple of things in the last 5-6 years since it has been brought in –

- It has succeeded in changing the geography of the class room

- Children can do things on their own. Teacher is not the only resource in the classroom

- It has helped the teachers re-look at their own roles in the classroom

ABL has opened up methodologies and ideas. For example, instead of the conventional class rooms, there are subject class rooms like maths room and language room, and the group is a mixed age-group… this has brought in newer ways of learning like never before. For instance, child-to-child learning.

An ABL classroom:
There are 6 circles / groups of mixed age children in one class room. These groups are formed on the basis of their learning, like “Teacher needed”, “Peer support”, “Self learn”, “Partial teacher support” and so on.

There are activity charts for the children, and there is the ladder chart for each subject with milestones on it for the child to see for herself what her progress is. Textbooks are not used by the children in the conventional way of mugging up. There are flash cards that are colour coded for the different levels, with each containing one concept. This is what is used primarily by the children along with the activity charts and a few other aids. The activity is curriculum driven and the child does not choose.

The subjects are Language (English, Tamil), Maths, EVS, Social studies and Science.

The questions that came up for discussion are as follows:

- How have the teachers taken the change and transitioned from earlier to now

- On what basis are the 6 circles chosen

- Is not this class room process difficult when the teacher has to look after 40 students

- How do teachers identify when some circle who are on their own have learnt correctly

- What is the feedback from the children

- How do they learn English language and grammar

- How is it decided which group does a child go to

- Which class / Std is the child in then

Amukta spoke to the group about the nature of the circles, that they are dynamic and keep changing according to the learning needs and progress. This is determined by the evaluation charts by which the child knows how much progress she has made and what she has to do next. All material is learner’s material, not teaching aids. This is important to remember, and it is the learner’s responsibility to learn and finish. The onus for learning has shifted from the teacher for 40 students to each child for herself.

Philosophy behind the restructuring of the classroom

But the concern remained among the group that the teacher still has a lot to do, since she has to individually spend time with the children at all 6 levels and whether this would be happening effectively.

Questions and a discussion on the philosophy behind the restructuring of the class room followed. The concern was whether this is only going to be a structural change or it would go deeper. One of the participants, Alexander, pointed out one problem that he has noticed, of contrariness of values, which would not change if things remain at the structural level – he spoke about how the industry and professionals are constantly asked to cultivate or given training in team work, but in schools, al the focus is on the individual and individual identity.

The other associated question was whether this was connected to real life for the child; that this is methodology but how is it changing what she is learning and in what way – the content. Apropos, the other concern was that there is no change in the value system.

Amukta spoke about how even if the content of textbooks has not explicitly changed, such methods cannot be practiced without some changes in the way the content is looked at, which in itself is a major change. The teacher’s solitary authority in the class room is now questioned; there are other resource points for the children. This leaves the teacher to engage with the children freely and the scope for the teacher and child to co-learn expands dramatically. It is true that though all are in their circles, the learning happens individually and hence the teacher has to be aware of each child’s learning level. This, from what is happening on the field, is not so difficult, and teacher training and meetings at every level is being given importance. The one thing to remember even the classroom processes should not be rigidified, as this would again create problems.

Dr.L.S. Saraswathi mentioned here that even the terms ‘content’ and ‘methodology’ are obsolete; If we were to look at them as ‘process’ and ‘practice’, then the entire dynamics would change and how can there be a change in one without affecting the other? She also said that value is in everything, they cannot be taught separately as one component, they will have to be part of everything that they child does.

There were other miscellaneous discussions on parents and their expectations from the children as well as the school, peer support etc.

In summarising, Ram said that it is always taken for granted that private players are pioneers, but in this the government has come forward with the change and this is very good. HE continued saying that however there are huge obstacles to cross, since this is still in transition phase and our very language and terms of reference will have to change.

Amukta concluded saying that a mention has to be made of Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan Official, Mr. Vijay Kumar, who has made all the difference and made this change possible.

Amukta’s Inputs on the Board

Problems in Present schooling system

Changes seen as a result of solutions presented by ABL

Difficulties at Field Level

- Herd teaching

- Children not learning, even reading, writing and maths

- teacher is a mere policeman

- children idle most of the time or tracing mechanically

- all children doing the same thing at the same time in the same manner

- individual, group and collective learning

- children able to read and write by class 2

- maths skills are pretty high

- each child learns at her / his own pace

- not enough teacher support in the field

- training is too brief, focused on ladder, logos and charts

- circle, not child directed

- danger of mechanical learning if not enough care

- Priya

Quotable Quotes from the January 2008 session

"We are changing the system, but we are also resisting the change"
- Ranjan De, 12th January 2008, Paatashaala session on ABL

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Paatashaala - 6th October 2007

Participants: Sathyamoorthy, Nithiyanandam, Chitra Nagesh, Vidhyalakshmi, Ramasubramanian, Priya

Note: Amukta Mahapatra could not make it to this Paatashaala session, and the predetermined agenda (sharing of experience by Amukta) for this gathering had to be postponed. The group had a rather free flowing dialogue on learning, triggered off by Ram asking each individual to share his / her recent learning with the group.

Thinking capacity in students
Vidhyalakshmi who is currently involved with a voluntary activity of examining the papers submitted by students in the YDC contest conducted by the Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, shared her insight. The YDC is an annual essay competition with a difference. Specific questions are asked of students in answers to which they write their essays. Different questions are asked at the different levels – middle, higher and senior school students. The questions are aimed at making the students think, for his own growth, for that of his family, society and the nation. Vidhya’s insight was that students until the 8th std gave quite original and creative answers. However students from higher classes wrote very prescribed, conditioned essays in answer to the questions.

This led to a discussion on why this is so. Many related issues were brought up. A general feeling was that in terms of pedagogy, there was a broader scope for innovation and experimentation in the lower classes, which is considerably lesser or not at all in the higher, due to pressures of academic performance. Sathya also particularly felt that play and diversity is cut down drastically in the higher classes, whereas we all know that play is an important and effective method of learning. It was also recognised that this happens over a period of time, not all of a sudden, but very intensely in the higher classes, where marks and exams are given utmost importance and thinking takes a back seat.

Improving the self
Chitra Nagesh said that she feels she is learning everyday but is unable to articulate clearly what she learns. This learning for her is to improve her self and to attain equanimity in all circumstances, and she learns something or the other in this practice of hers everyday.

‘Teaching’ Gandhi to children
Sathya said that he has learnt newly that it is very difficult to teach children what one knows. His sharing with the group is as follows:

“My nephews aged 4 and 6 asked me about Gandhi and I found it very difficult to share with them what I knew. I had gone to this Gandhi course, studied Hind swaraj but I was totally in conflict as to what I can tell them from Hind swaraj that they will understand. I didn’t know stories from his life that I could tell them; what do I tell them when I myself didn’t know much?”

Priya at this point shared some thing in response to this. She said that Jane Sahi of Sita SchoolBangalore stated this truly great insight during a learning conference – that it is a myth to say “I can only teach what I know”. Explaining the point, if this statement were to be true, then the learning is not accounted for, and only the one-side flow of facts etc is acknowledged. The teaching (content) and the one who is teaching gains primary importance, overriding the dialogue and the mutual learning that will happen between the two or more entities. This is only information giving, not a facilitation of the learning that is bound to happen in a process of dialogue, by all. near

Ram added to this his own thoughts:

“Recently, in response to a request for an article on learning, I had written just about this learning experience – is learning a one-way process? Is it giving or taking or both? Are we giving or taking? We are doing it simultaneously! What you give is your observation, care, sensitivity… you take learning among other things. In the light of such learning experiences, the formal education becomes but a small component of one’s entire life’s learning. For example, sathya, maybe you could have shared the brute force story that we had read during the Hind swaraj session with your nephews. “

The brute force story was told to the group. Please follow this link to read the relevant piece in the Brute Force chapter.

Sathya protested saying that this is not a story to say to a child, he will not understand it! He added that he did not know of many stories from Gandhiji’s life, and that he didn’t know how to say this story in a way that they would understand. In response, Priya again reiterated that “it is not information to give to the children, it is a space for learning that we have to use creatively; if we didn’t know stories per say, we could take one principle and discuss it taking from our own lives; or we could take from someone else who in our understanding has tried to say in essence similar things, say, Swami Vivekananda. It is not a performance test on the life of Gandhi, rather it is a space and time for experiencing something together.”

An unreported episode from Gandhiji’s life
In continuation with the brute force story, Ram shared with the group his exchanges related to this issue during the SwaRaj retreat:

“While one elderly person said the story really makes us think deeper, another person, middle-aged said that this sounds biblical and that this could not happen in real life. The same person then went on to ask whether then this is a matter of history or conviction and how could anyone be so nonviolent? I replied that he has also said that sometimes violence is the best form of ahimsa, for which his question was whether then Gandhiji only used his method of nonviolence as a strategy and does this mean he didn’t actually have such a quality? … This conversation remained inconclusive between the two of us, but when I came back I happened to read an episode from Gandhiji’s life published now in the Sarvodaya magazine, which I think lent itself to some of the earlier discussions. Please read the episode here.

There are any number of ways to create a learning experience. If one cannot tell stories, there are other starting points, for example, visually. Look at Gandhiji’s appearance. Did any other political leader dress the way he had done? He wore the dhoti. So maybe start with asking a child whether s(he) has seen any person of political etc consequence wear such a dress in public, what do they think about it and lead conversation from there. This is just one more way. We don’t have to supply information all the time.

We can have beautiful experiences in learning to do things with hands for instance. There is no need for so many words. In the violence of noise and words, can we help them to sit silently for 5 minutes and experience that silence, listen to that silence and deepen observation in that silence. Can we talk to them about keeping the neighbourhood clean and how t his can be done regularly? All this is also Gandhi.

So, learning happens in so many ways, not restricted to children or schools! In fact, more people should drop out of schools and colleges and the engineering conveyor belt, more learning can happen.”

Career Mapping
Apropos to the previous point made, Nithiyanandam spoke of the different approach that they take to career mapping in their workshops with college students. He explained how they worked backwards from any of the popular professions that are coveted and asked the students about the requirements for the particular professions. Leading backwards they explored areas of studies to be pursued and still further to then the interests that an individual needs to have to reach a particular career option. Then they examined the various career options, how career aspirations of students are formed – are they based on the interests and inclinations of each individual or by conditioning. The students then went onto map interests, career aspirations and options during the session.

This led to a discussion that included issues of conditioning, influence of media, corroding of aesthetics and simplicity in functioning in the pursuit of things that are imposed on us from all sides, how do we explore (if we explore at all) the question, “what do we aspire to be?’, how power equations seem to be very important in today’s context, that we teach our children by not in so many words, but our actions to recognise power and respond to it, and that we need to go beyond social and economic barriers mentally and not Just as gestures. For instance, the group discussed about how we look at say, a computer engineer and a post man and the resulting behaviour. We have to examine carefully how some of these fundamental inhibitions, judgments and assumptions are formed and transmitted.