In the 1980s, when I was growing up, one of my favourite games was to build a house inside which I could just ‘be’. Bedsheets and mosquito nets would transform into camping tents and discarded bricks, sticks, and leaves in the garden would be put together to erect a shelter. Building a house was my constant preoccupation. Yet, it was something I needed to steal time to do – outside school, during holidays, after homework – on the sly.
Cut to 2014, a group of children spend hours outdoors trying to build a small house in their school premises. A few children bring in the resources – bricks, wooden planks, and dried coconut leaves, while the others put the structure together. Sometimes the structure starts looking tentative – the wooden plank gives way, the bricks reveal their instability and the children rethink their plan and quickly rearrange the bricks. Their teacher stands not too far away from the site, keenly observing the process, sometimes video recording it, but never speaking out of turn, or giving unsolicited instructions. This is a regular day at Sadhana Village School, an alternate learning space 30 kms away from Pune. The school is a space for natural learning, where a simple game such as building a house, can become a lesson in planning, visual thinking, designing, team work, leadership, creativity, and managing expectations to name a few. If someone had told me about this place when I was growing up, I would have called it – Paradise.
“At Sadhana we don’t teach. In the first year, there was absolutely no teaching at all. The children would come to school and play. They played organically; we didn’t give them any toys. A child does not need it at all. Anything that a child picks up, he considers it a toy,” says Jinan K B, the brain behind the ‘Reimagining School’ initiative at Sadhana Village School. “The idea of the school is to enlarge the scope of school to include the whole community which enables the growth of the natural, biological process in children to lead a sustainable, contended and harmonious life – a life that is in harmony with nature, culture, society, family, and self.”
Learning to see
Most learning is not the result of instruction. It’s rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting – Ivan Illich
Most mainstream schools consider learning to happen through reading, through understanding and comprehending the ‘knowledge’ that resides within the pages of a book. There is little emphasis on its application in real life. Yet, the fact is, we are all natural ‘doers’. “Let’s assume we want a child to learn to climb a ladder. Most conventional learning methods detail how the child should lift her leg and put it on the first step. It might also design an activity to balance on one leg. Instead, place a ladder in front of the child and encourage her to climb. The child would then try different ways to reach the top of the ladder. In the process, she learns to climb the ladder on her own. An adult can be around to help, if needed. The adult may even climb the ladder to excite and show the child how it’s done. The point is that the objective of the child is not to learn to climb the ladder, but to reach the top. And learning to climb the ladder is just a by-product of all her efforts,” says Pramod Maithil who founded Prakriti Initiatives based in Bhopal that runs an after school centre, Tinkering LAB that follows the principles of natural learning. The centre has a learner centric system where children are encouraged to freely pursue their own ideas and questions.
Learning happens by doing, not by mere intellectual comprehension. One may read as much literature as one wants about how to climb a ladder, but one would never learn until one does it. When learning becomes experiential, knowledge is not something that resides within texts and books, but something that is created through the transformation of experience.
What does it require to be a learner? Jinan emphasizes, “Humility. The humility to see – to allow things to happen. Things reveal themselves. I feel what we really require is not knowledge, but the sensitivity to see. This seeing is revealing what is happening. So see what is happening. Don’t conclude. Don’t reason. I feel reasoning short-circuits comprehension. Comprehension has to happen by the whole being. But we unfortunately use just our little heads to reason and comprehend.”
Between organized classrooms, lecturing teachers, competitive environments, pressure to perform, and the mad rush to acquire ‘knowledge’, the modern schooling system fails the children in allowing them to develop this humility, to stop, to see, to comprehend beyond their minds. “Most schooling systems underestimate the potential of a child. Children are not only natural learners, but can also own and construct their own learning paths,” says Ratnesh Mathur, who along with Aditi Mathur founded Aarohi Life Education, an alternate space for learning about 60 kms away from Bangalore.
Most alternative learning spaces that have been exploring self-directed learning methodologies have radically questioned the purpose of schooling and its structure. They have said no to classrooms, subjects, syllabus, homework, uniforms, discipline, deadlines, exams, and lecturing teachers. Ratnesh explains the model at his school, “At Aarohi, children plan their own learning path. Each child chooses a topic from the content and sets the goal based on this. Then she decides what she wants to do, how much she wants to do and how she wants to do it. For example if a child chooses ‘story’ as a topic from the content, she makes a mind map of what her understanding of a story is, chooses what she wants to do, reads different types of stories/writers, writes her own story, makes a video of her story, etc. So the child moves to choosing how she wants to explore this content – make a song, meet different writers, watch plays, or experience a few things related to the story and share those experiences. Children pursue it until they feel they have reached their goal and have got what they want and then move to doing other things.”
At Sadhana School roughly 60 percent of the time children play, 20 percent of the time they draw, the rest of the time they are talking and sharing their experiences. Jinan says, “In modern processes of schooling, we discard everything that we are today. We think that schools will provide us with knowledge, so we need to go there and learn.” Then, he questions, “How do we bring about a learning process that does not differentiate between what is happening in the village, their homes, and their school?”
To teach or not to teach
I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn – Albert Einstein
One may wonder what the role of a teacher is in a space where children own their learning paths and become independent learners. A self-directed learning space is one of the most challenging environments for a teacher. “One of the key roles of a teacher in the self-directed space is to keep up the child’s motivation by encouraging them to question, think critically and come up with creative solutions,” says Pramod.
The role of the teacher is not of someone who mouths theories from a textbook, but of someone who guides and directs the thoughts of a child. Ratnesh gives an example, “A few days ago, one of our children faced a problem. He had to lift and transport a bucket that was very heavy. We got talking and I probed him to think about what could be different solutions to the problem. He didn’t want to get help. He said he could take just half the bucket of water, but he didn’t want to do that either as that would increase the number of trips he would have to make to carry the bucket. He finally came up with another idea and used a trolley that is otherwise used to transport heavy gas cylinders. The solution was a big hit with the other children and they have come up with a new bucket trolley game which has since then become quite popular.”
One of the most important lessons for a teacher comes from educator John Holt – Trust Children. Yes it’s as easy as that, but it’s also that tough. I ask Ratnesh, how easy or tough it is to teach in a method that you were not taught in? “I understand the cognitive damages that mainstream schooling has done to me, yet I think all of us still retain our natural learning instincts. Before schooling, and after college, that’s how we have learnt. Haven’t we? I nurture this instinct to learn naturally. I join the children and learn with them. I think the community of teachers that I work with has also been a great inspiration. If I lose my way, they are there to remind me gently. “The teachers in a self-directed learning space are much more involved in the child’s holistic growth. “In fact what makes us different from most mainstream teachers is how involved we are in the social, emotional, and psychological growth of the children we work with.”
Is technology a threat to experiential learning?
Apart from this the teacher needs to make accessible and available rich content and resources that will benefit the individual learner. This content could include books, magazines, artifacts, experiential tools, visits and interviews, access to experts, and digital tools. All these become tools for learning. However, the tools that are chosen impact the learning itself. If the activity is to build a mud house, one could consider building it with hand, or simulating it on the computer using a design application. The learning happens in both cases. But what is learnt and what is missed in the learning depends on the specific method and tools used in the learning process. While with the hand the learning is sensual, employing multiple body faculties, on the computer, it remains devoid of any such lived experience, and hence incomplete.
So, does the arrival of the digital era, and the easy access to information pose a threat to self-learning and independent thinking? Pramod answers, “Unlike other learning spaces where there is heavy dependence on technology, children at our centre hardly use the computer. They are encouraged to come up with original designs and this challenges them. There is no pressure of performance, so the children are not afraid of making mistakes and experiment freely. Even in the rare case that they use the computer, it’s usually to refer to a picture or watch a video. So, I see technology merely as a tool.”
According to Jinan the digital era can pose a threat to the way we learn and experience the world. “We are formed by the cognitive conditions that we engage with. In the rural tribal communities it’s the nature and natural processes that are their souls of cognition. The structure and nature of our beingness is the structure and beingness of our cognitive souls. Biological cognition is something that happens in real time and real space. But when we are dealing with text, we are dealing with something that happened elsewhere in another space, another time and to somebody else. The way the future of education is predicted and is likely to follow is along the digital technology path which will be a mere extension of the existing paradigm. All the struggles are merely to change from text mode to digital mode. It seems to change everything at the surface level but in essence the process is the same and this illusion of change will be far more harmful. The change that will happen is that the student will have access to a never-ending flow of information masked as knowledge. External authority of knowledge remains and only the process of accessing it changes.”
As teachers, we need to be cognizant that we don’t take away the ‘experience’ out of learning and keep technology as an aid, a tool, and not an end in itself.
Note: Readers are invited to visit the following links to know more about the learning spaces discussed in this article:
The author is an educator based in Bangalore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.