Exploring new learning spaces

Amit, Jayashree, and Manasi

hut1 Nestled in Sakad village, Madhya Pradesh, India, Adharshila Learning Centre aims to provide adivasi children with a strong foundation. The centre aims to provide an inclusive and interesting education relevant to student’s lives. Students learn through experiments, observations, songs, theatre, student-teaching, farming and community interactions, apart from the regular reading and writing. Challenging the mainstream exam-based education system, the centre is also an experimentation ground for different ideas that will foster students’ creativity, confidence, and consciousness. In the past month, students at the centre have initiated a new project, one that has provided both awe and challenge.

Children’s Space vs School
Adharshila is abuzz with energy. It starts at eight in the morning and children have to be dragged out at five or six in the evening. Since the last three weeks, children have been fully engaged, making small box like rooms for themselves, using anything they can lay their hands on – twigs, gunny bags, plastic, cloth, ropes, anything old.

They are sitting in these rooms, eating, playing, chatting, reading, and writing, and drawing. But mainly they are building the room, already repairing, rebuilding, changing location, and decorating.

It started as a fun game, but now it’s a full time activity. It is no longer a game for them, as the kids have brought in water pots for cool water, made space for washing clothes, a common open space with park – like benches, and racks for books, clotheslines, curtains, and small brick enclosed verandahs. Even a dry latrine is under construction. Outside one of the homes, a Subabool sapling and an aloe vera plant have been planted and are being drip irrigated (a suspended plastic bag filled with water with a small hole). A chalkboard with the school chants and all of the residents’ names is placed in full view. As soon as the kids heard a story of a boy in Africa who brought electricity to his home and village making a wind mill out of waste, they started to ‘make current’ from gobar (dung). No two houses are the same and there is a steady flow of visitors to one another’s houses. There are three hamlets – Tower, Papita (papayya), and Boyda (hill) – with 2-5 houses in each hamlet and 4-5 students in each house. In all about 40 children are involved in this activity.

PIC_0119 But it is not entirely a rosy picture. There are fights over what belongs to whom, damage to each other’s huts, and also to public property, at least two new trees and hedges were broken, new bricks were taken away for construction, one almirah and the basement were ransacked for material.

So, a meeting was held to frame rules. Everybody had a say and about 20 rules were framed. While these rules solved the problems between the children, the teachers and the senior students were still apprehensive and resisted this behaviour from the children. One day, the teachers were very upset as nobody turned in for ‘school’. They had to pull out the children from their huts and send them to class.

For the teacher, the worry is how to manage the school curriculum when all the students have gone off in different directions, each doing a different thing. Before the establishment of this children’s village, the bell-guided the school structure and there was a set pattern – morning prayer, class, breakfast, class, lunch, class… But now, we had got rid of the bell, because it went against the students’ flow of work in their new spaces. Again, there was opposition to this, and the question remained… how to add the school stuff in the context of what the students have themselves created?

So we had a meeting to explain the importance of this activity and generate ideas on how to incorporate the ‘learning of subjects’.

PIC_0196 We tried to tell our teachers that this was the best possible thing that could have happened. The children were doing something continuously for 12 hours, without being told anything. We had to now think how this initiative could be extended to what we call studying or learning.

The children were learning how to use freedom creatively, deciding what they wanted to do, and pursuing their ideas without anyone telling them what to do. They were learning self discipline. And they were learning more than they would have if we tried to teach them these things.

While the teachers were happy with this, they wanted to know what would happen to the English, math, science, etc., that these children are supposed to learn. So we drew up some more rules –

For teachers
1. Go by their (children’s) plan for a while.
2. Go to their huts and record what they are doing.

For children
English exercises

1. Where do you live?
2. Who lives in your house?
3. When did you build your house?
4. What is your house made of?
5. What is in your house?
6. What are the names of trees by your house?
7. What are you doing?
8. What are you doing in the hut?

1. Survey the village and the hamlets and make a list. Find out who lives where, the number of people in each house and total the number of residents.
2. Make a map of the village.
3. Plant a medicinal tree by your house.

1. Take measurements of your house, find it’s area.
2. Worksheets at different levels that students do independently and move up as they successfully complete a level.

PIC_0205 Each of these activities was written on a card and the children were free to take a card and do the work indicated any time they wished to. On completing a card they had to show to the teacher who would correct it and check it against her list.

The students have been continuously and independently beautifying and ideating for a month now, every day, along with the rest of the school activities – cooking, farming, theatre, singing. And the reading and writing is alive and well, as the houses are a favourite place for quiet (and uninterrupted by bells & teachers) study. They read, sing songs, make lists, tell stories, play cards, sleep, eat… the list goes on.

… I’ve heard that the physical environment is a major conditioner of behaviour. From observing and interacting with the children and their spaces it is evident that the kids hold a sense of ownership over their house, their work, their days. Hopefully this will help them take control of their lives in adulthood. One thing that can be surely seen is the drive they have in this new project, and there is potential for much more…..

On a Monday, the teachers forgot all the meetings and rang the bell. They collected all the children and asked them to go to class! Some children didn’t go. They were tucked away in their new houses. Again, a meeting was held.

Now a bargain has been arrived at. Sometimes the children have to go to their level groups in English and math. Sometimes they can sit and do whatever they want. At other times they are given activity cards and they can choose to do them whenever they want. We are creating more spaces and activities that they can go to. For e.g., there are two boxes with books and a cupboard with some games. Children just go there, take out things on their own and keep playing or reading. We are trying to create more of these self service counters.

PIC_0279 We feel that this is a good thing and will continue working out compromises with the children. This approach has generated a totally new concept of learning within a school environment and we are now working out a different architectural concept for this approach.

A school with a difference

Adharshila Learning Centre was founded in June 1998. The centre is run by the organization Veer Khajiya Naik Manav Vikas Pratishthan and was titled “learning centre” by founders Amit and Jayashree Bhatnagar to emphasize its difference from regular test-based schools. The flexible curriculum and holistic approach focuses as much on academics as it does on practical application and awareness. With volunteers coming from all over the world, the children get a wider exposure through their interaction. The learning centre has given opportunities to those students who didn’t accept the mainstream test system and has shown that alternative methods of learning can achieve the same, if not better, results. The children of Adharshila get to conduct ‘Baal Melas’ in other schools to involve the children there in music, games, experiments, and activities. Music and dance is a big part of their lives. The children’s evaluation entails their revisiting all that they’ve learned the past year without being given any marks or grades. When the year has passed, the teachers stay back to review the work done and get ready for the next .Students passing out of the centre have gone on to get married, study further, or come back to work at Adharshila.

To more about the school, visit:
Phone: 0 94259 81606

Anyone with an idea interested in coming and working with the students? Calling engineers, architects, artists, muisicans, teachers…

Amit and Jayashree have been working with the adivasis in western Madhya Pradesh for the past 30 years. They started the Adharshila Learning Centre, a residential facility for adviasi children in 1998.

Mansi has been volunteering at Adharshila for the last two years, teaching math and science, working on the organic farm and helping to run Adharshila. She is also studying about various social issues and problems facing the country and adivasis in particular. She aspires to be an artist.

The authors can be reached at adharshila.learningcentre@gmail.com.

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