A dream realized

Pramod Maithil

A lot of people working in education dream of a school that will embody their ideas of what education ought to be. I began to perceive such a dream while I worked with Eklavya (an NGO with interest in teacher education, school management, and creating learning aids). And my dream came true with the setting up of Anand Niketan Democratic School (ANDS). ANDS is a non-conventional school, attempting to develop a democratic education model to achieve inclusion in schools and create a pedagogical alternative for education at the elementary level.

Looking back, I find that my understanding of education developed in two important respects:
(a) Appreciation of the concepts/theories
(b) Insight into the system

While these aspects overlap and advance simultaneously (a) is concerned chiefly with what education is and (b) has more do with how education should be organized.

Issues in education
I first confronted the problems in education after starting work with Eklavya in 1998-99 as a research associate.

  • Schools overemphasize information, which flows from a widely held view of knowledge as ‘factual’ information.
  • The examination system has gravely damaged education in general. The entire edifice of education has come to be constructed on and around examinations.
  • Non-academic activities are given secondary status or looked down upon. Manual work, sports, and activities expressive of emotions are often absent.

interventions-1 How do children learn?
“Children learn through anything and everything.”
The work with Eklavya, interspersed with some reading, gave me a foundational understanding of how children learn. Children have an unfathomable capacity to learn. Take the example of a child (age 5) who has learnt his/her mother tongue. I don’t think the child makes any mistake in pronouncing the letters “ka” and “kha”. No child will be able to explain how exactly he/she twisted his/her tongue to pronounce these letters correctly. This is true across languages. Children keep hearing these sounds in meaningful conversation most of their waking hours. Very young children come to use and play with different sounds. It’s our affectionate response to their inchoate attempts at producing a sound that tells them that they have successfully produced the intended sound.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that we should give young children every possible opportunity to express and play, and be sensitive to their every attempt. However, we do just the opposite in schools by unconsciously humiliating a child by pointing at his/her mistakes.

Why is there a division of subjects?

No. Statements Parameters of truth Testing Key Difference
1 2+2=5 predefined facts (axioms) and logical analysis Axioms
2 “X” birds lay egg in Summer Define ‘X’ bird, egg… observation and logical analysis Observation or controlled experiment
3 There shouldn’t be Reservation Define terms, opinion collection and logical analysis Human intention

The table above gives a fine explanation of the basis of subject categories. It also implies that each subject requires a different “frame of mind” to understand. It surely must be difficult for any child to keep switching his/her “frame of mind” throughout the day.

The argument of the ‘lump of clay’
A child is a ‘lump of clay’ was an often repeated statement once upon a time. The teacher was to mould the child into a desired shape. Today, it is widely acknowledged that every child enters school with a lot of previously acquired knowledge. Every new experience of a child interacts with his/her previous knowledge to form new knowledge. This process is deeply influenced, of course, by the child’s social environment.

Insight into the system

It’s not a factory
Reading Danger: School, sharpened my understanding of the education system. I realized that the school system is modeled as a factory that treats children as inanimate raw material to be processed into finished goods. There is no correspondence between the industrial process and the process that we call education. The latter deals with human beings after all, in all their social and psychological complexity.

Authoritarian system
The teacher as a figure of authority both in terms of knowledge and discipline is widely accepted. ‘Don’t argue’ ‘be quiet’, ‘don’t move’, ‘move in a queue’ and such other peremptory instructions are their tools of enforcement.

interventions-2

Mirror of social disparities
The school system is also one of the most vital means of reinforcing social classes and disparities. Schools increasingly are offering a graded fee structure, where well-off parents have the option of paying high fees to have better education facilities for their children, thus making for an ever finer stratification of society. These stratified and stratifying schools have their own aims and outlooks with little concern for those they deem below their class. And the ‘successfully’ schooled children become perpetuators of disparities and dysfunctions in society rather than the change agents they could have been.

The dream comes on ground
This understanding of the education system that I gained through reading, observation, and research helped me draw up a plan for a ‘good’ school. I had spent 7-8 years evolving this dream.

Now I will talk about experiences and attempts I made before ANDS.

I joined Sahtyadri School in 2006 to learn how a school functions and also to try and implement my ideas in a school. Apart from innovative class work, I set up a junior lab in school where children could tinker around and perform experiments. This idea was a hit with the children. I asked the children to bring whatever they could find to the lab and make something out of that. The children would come to me with an idea and I would encourage them to transform the idea into a working model. This was the first successful attempt of the kind of learning space I wanted.

I began working for Eklavya again in 2008. I began visiting a school as part of an action research project I was doing. I rented a room just outside this school and stocked it up with tangram, books, puzzles, etc. Children started coming to this learning space before their school began every day. This experience gave me useful insights into the possibilities of different learning spaces.

I moved to Bhopal in 2010. I started looking for a school for my four-year-old daughter. I was joined in this daunting task by a couple of parents. None of us had any faith in the mainstream schools. We eventually had to compromise on our ideal school. We found a private school and persuaded the management to start an ‘independent class’, which would give children freedom from competitive pressures and a space to be with peers. This was a kind of pre-trial for ANDS.

Meanwhile, I came in contact with Mr. Kamal Mangal of Anand Niketan Group of Schools-Ahmedabad, and requested him to give us financial assistance. He agreed to help us! And I agreed readily to take full responsibility for putting the plan into execution and running the school.

ANDS elements
ANDS design and activities reflect the above learning. The fact that children do not want to go back from our school is a huge achievement for us. We have children from all economic backgrounds and manage to be inclusive by creating equal opportunities and shared ownership.

After a refreshing singing assembly, children go to the ‘podium’ to sit together and reflect on what they did the previous day. The podium is turning out to be a wonderful space for oral language development.

I didn’t want the regular classroom set up in my school. So instead of classrooms in ANDS we have theme rooms: Language and Enquiry; Numeracy and Logic; Art and Aesthetics (Visual and Performing Art); Child Scientist; Sense of History and Society; Play area. And unlike in regular schools where children remain seated in their classrooms and the teachers walk into class, in ANDS it is the other way round. It is the children that walk into different theme rooms while the teachers remain in their specified theme rooms.

Students decide their day schedule and what they wish to learn in the theme rooms, where they embark on a journey of discovery into language, mathematics, art, games, and other life skills.

On the whole, we have laid the foundation of a democratic and inclusive institution and so far haven’t compromised with our idea of a ‘good’ school. Our school is a work in progress as we are continuing to improve and redesign facilities and ideas. Questions and problems too haven’t stopped arising, but we are now ready to respond to them collectively.

The author is one of the founders and currently the Director of Anand Niketan Democratic School (ANDS). ANDS is a non-conventional school, attempting to develop a democratic education model to achieve inclusion in schools and create a pedagogical alternative for education at the elementary level. The author can be reached at pramod.maithil@gmail.com.