Children as self-directed learners

A case study of Aarohi Life Education
Richa Pandey

Teaching and learning have been key components of any discussion around education. Over the last few decades, children have taken the centrestage of this discussion. Starting from behaviourist to constructivist theories, several ways and modes have been suggested to ensure effective learning in the classroom. Socio-cultural theorists like Vygotsky have elaborated on how children construct knowledge. Numerous policy documents have made recommendations about how teachers should plan their lessons keeping in mind the diverse learners in their classrooms.

While there has been a significant shift in the way ‘learning’ is perceived over the last few decades, as students we had limited agency. As a student, seldom was I asked if I was satisfied with the kind of education I was receiving. Therefore, it intrigued me to know how children learn when provided with the autonomy to decide what, when and how they want to learn. This article is based on my visit to an informal learning centre, located in Tamil Nadu, which provides a stage for children to learn by directing their course of learning themselves. I visited Aarohi on a research project with my research partner Ridhima in 2019. At that time there were 20 children and 4 faculty members at the centre.

Aarohi is an informal learning centre established in June 2009 in Bangalore by a couple engaged in the education system for decades. Reminiscing about the evolution of their brainchild from a play school to an informal learning centre, the founder of Aarohi, Ratnesh Mathur shared, “It’s been more like a journey where we have tried to, from the beginning, relook at education”.

The key elements that support self-directed learning at Aarohi
I. Planning process: At Aarohi Life Education, children and adults devote an hour of their mornings to plan their entire day. The planning is done in collaboration with each other keeping the schedule of the centre as a framework. Children at Aarohi select the activity to be done during ‘self-schedule time’ based on what interests them. For instance, a 15-year-old is learning psychology because it’s new to her and interests her. When we asked the children to list their three favourite activities, we got the following response.

S. No.MusicArt and CraftTheatreSportsRecreationalCourse/Job
1DrummingJewellery makingDramaFootballSocializingReading
2OrigamiTrampolineAviation
3Art explorationCaring for younger babiesRepair
4Wall paintingElectrical work
5Mud paintingProgramming
6StitchingManaging Accounts

Clearly, children at Aarohi experience, explore and express diverse forms of interests.

Also, planning at Aarohi is essentially a reflective practice and is based on one’s own reflections done the previous day during thought club. The reflections include whether they were able to achieve what they planned to and what they learnt in the process. At times, the children discuss their day with their mentors and plan the next day based on the feedback.

II. Role of facilitators: There are four facilitators at Aarohi Life Education, including the co-founding couple. These facilitators play a significant role in enabling and sustaining a self-directed learning environment.

Qualities of facilitators
a) Reflective practitioner: The facilitator is expected to be able to modify activities as per the need of the hour. The idea is to provide interactions that suit the needs of a particular learner. So if a practice doesn’t work, they should be able to reflect and respond to the situation.
b) Dynamic: This centre is demanding in terms of the effort and energy required to sustain the desired environment. It’s called ‘city of action’ because the daily schedule involves action beginning at 6 A.M. and ending at 10 P.M. Here, each child is autonomously deciding her own course of learning and thus needs interaction specific to her needs.
c) Non-judgmental: The facilitators are non-judgmental and every voice is heard regardless of age and experience of the speaker. In fact, this particular quality allows the children to experience a sense of autonomy and thereby enables self-directed learning.
d) Open to being questioned: The facilitators are open to being questioned as everyone is considered a learner at Aarohi. To that extent, examining one’s own beliefs, preconceived notions and biases becomes important. Readiness to unlearn thus becomes the starting point to learn and teach here.

Responsibilities of facilitators
a) Initiates into the institution: First, the facilitator orients the child about the way of learning at Aarohi. Most of the children have had some experience of formal schooling before they joined Aarohi.
b) Continuous monitoring, provide spontaneous and organic feedback: Facilitators monitor the growth of each child and provide feedback as and when required. Again what form the feedback will take is not pre-decided and hence no uniformity can be seen. In this sense it’s organic.
c) Initiate into different forms of knowledge: Though the principle of self-directed learning is central to the organization, the facilitators provide guidance when required. There are clubs like reading, mathematics, art and craft where children learn different concepts along with the facilitators.

III. Other key factors
a) Involvement of community: The community gets involved in broadly two ways. Firstly, members of the community share the skills they possess with children. For instance, a 70 year-old member shared lessons on the Bhagavad Gita and the story of Vivekananda with the children during our stay. Secondly, the community may share space for learning. For instance, a baker near the centre used to provide his oven for an hour so that a child could bake his bread, without charging anything in return.
b) Infrastructure: The centre encourages children to be responsible citizens by inculcating values like conservation of resources and caring for other beings. The kitchen here doesn’t have a sink or tap, a three dip system is followed to clean the utensils. Similarly, the washrooms don’t have flush systems and people use limited water from the hand pumps. Also, each individual is supposed to keep the washroom in usable condition for the next person. The campus also has a dry compost pit. Interestingly, there’s a separate room for the pets to stay, reinforcing “care for others”.
c) Daily-schedule: Every member on the campus has to follow the daily-schedule prepared by the members of the campus themselves. Apart from the activities related to planning and execution of the plan, the schedule has a fixed time slot for campus care in which all members work in three teams to clean the entire campus. Similarly, every member is responsible for cleaning the kitchen area after a meal is served and consumed. Also, during the thought club, children are encouraged to reflect upon their day and praise themselves or anyone else for anything worth appreciating. This is also an opportunity to resolve conflicts and apologize. Thus, the daily-schedule provides ample space for nurturing values related to care for self and others.

Self-directed learning environment (putting everything into perspective)
A fundamental concern still left to address is how children keep themselves motivated in the absence of reinforcements (positive or negative) or regular checks. The answer lies in the fact that children see an activity as an opportunity to learn more about what interests them and not as tasks or ends in themselves. They use their previous experience and feedback given by their mentors or peers and improve wherever they need to.

This is not to paint a rosy picture of alternative systems in general and Aarohi in particular. There are significant challenges when it comes to putting these ideas into practice. First, the child is not subjected to any compulsory assessment unless the child desires to appear for NIOS. Secondly, the centre doesn’t provide a certification regarding completion of ‘n’ number of schooling years as it’s not registered as a formal school. Logistically, it’s difficult to provide all kinds of experiences to a child in a fixed space. Same is the case with finding adults who are enthusiastic and willing to impart knowledge and skills with no expectations in return. These and similar challenges might explain the minor increase in enrolment in Aarohi over a decade.

Having said that, it cannot be denied that the learning experience provided at Aarohi is very different and probably long lasting compared to mainstream schools. This experience can’t be copied and pasted to any other school system as it’s organic and would work only in a specific context. The children coming from families where survival is at stake, for instance, would want to have a degree that assures a secured job and lifestyle. Similarly, the teachers trained to teach in a traditional environment and with responsibilities to manage families might not want to work for such long durations. It might not suit the interests of the majority in the capitalist and globally interconnected world we live in, but it does provide an alternative way of living that we might have to go back to, given the rapidly changing times and increasing environmental concerns.

The author is a postgraduate in Education from Azim Premji University with an interest in alternative schooling. She has been facilitating the learning spaces with children of different age groups for the last six years. She can be reached at [email protected].

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