Alternative Education - Learning to Live
by N. Kalyani
No school tomorrow? What will we do for the next two months without coming to school?" Such a sentiment expressed by school students anywhere in the globe would have been dismissed as the fantasy of an ivory-tower pedagogue. However, students at the Chennai-based Lalaji Memorial Omega School, quite simply, like school. Little wonder, too, for this revolutionary institution seeks to establish love as the cornerstone of education.
Located at the comparatively quieter and greener outskirts of Chennai in Kolapakkam, what is most striking at Omega is the relaxed, comfortable environment. Students and teachers interact openly and with respect for each other, in line with the gurukula system that the school hopes to bring back. "Such an atmosphere of love and acceptance inspires students to imbibe discipline without rebellion, indeed, naturally," says M.L.Nirmala, the school's energy-exuding and enthusiastic principal whose positivism and motivation are influencing teachers, parents and the children.
The Value of Values
Omega's unique contribution to pedagogy is its Value-Based Spiritual Education (VBSE).
VBSE focuses on values that emerge from within the individual. Like education, spirituality is from inside out, being intrinsic to an individual, requiring their flowering by nurturing. That is why Omega's vision states that it "strives to produce youngsters who are balanced, with soul, mind and body working in unison, with the soul guiding the mind in its activities, and the body acting under the guidance of the mind".
The VBSE program adopted at Omega has been developed by the Sahaj Marg Research and Training Institute (SMRTI), a part of the Sahaj Marg Spirituality Foundation (SMSF), a non-profit trust devoted to educational and research activities related to spirituality and meditation. The SMSF is a trust founded a few years ago by the Shri Ram Chandra Mission (SRCM), a spiritual organisation.
In order that the teachers imbibe the values they wish to promote in children, they are trained in meditation. The weekly meditation session every Wednesday evening has, according to Nirmala, "created an environment where teachers teach with their hearts. It follows automatically that the basis of the entire education process is love." Besides, teachers are recruited through a well planned-out selection procedure.
The school promotes a development of life skills and values in students through activities such as field trips, excursions, sensitization to issues of the outside community and society, sports, arts and crafts, yoga and celebration of festivals, national days and other school events. In doing so, it generates team spirit, sharing, caring, perseverance, national integration and appreciation of diversity - cultural, linguistic and ecological.
Values are integrated with the curricula of the social sciences, languages, as also the physical sciences and mathematics. The story of Rani of Jhansi, for instance, is not just a topic in history but manifests values - of valor, strength, and patriotism - to emulate. A topic like magnetism in science ends on a note that is enlightening - become a magnet of love. Similarly, stories in the languages - English, Hindi and Tamil - have been selected to promote the right values.
The integrated approach not only renders meaning and coherence to the value-oriented education process but in fact also makes learning easier. Values 'learnt' in isolation seem out of one's life's context, and become an additional 'subject' at school. Correlating and connecting topics with values makes it easy for children / students to grasp the subject matter and interiorise the values.
Consider these commonplace phenomena and their analogies. When a glass rod is dipped in a beaker of water, it appears bent; when it is taken out it is straight. This phenomenon of refraction is used as an analogy to the intrinsic divine nature of man that gets distorted by his thoughts, actions and words. An analogy to life and death is drawn from a colorful, inflated balloon whose air, when deflated, mixes with the vast atmosphere outside it. What was inside and outside are really the same. Profound thoughts that give young minds and hearts a glimpse into the reality of life.
Important subjects like nature are dealt with in a graded way from class VI to class X, increasing in complexity as the mind matures. In class VI, the splendor of nature is extolled through appreciation of various life forms and the many wonders in nature. Balance in nature is the focus in class VII which also includes the imbalance in man due to his negative traits, and how to restore balance. Students of Class VIII see nature as the natural giver, a trait man can emulate. Life force and the idea of energy - material and spiritual - are introduced to students in class IX.
Class X students appreciate the ideas of energy in greater detail - energy in creation and energy in nature. In understanding the energy in man, the aspect of physical and mental sustenance is shown alongside the energy that the soul needs to remain active -what the ancient spiritual tradition calls "Pranasya prana" - life of life - which is the transmission received from a spiritual guru.
In the philosophy of spiritual education, love encompasses all other values. Peace, generosity, truth, forgiveness, empathy, all hinge on love. Love, therefore, plays a major role in contributing to the ethos at Omega and is fostered through study time, fun time, play time and meal time. This love is deeply manifested in the relationship between teachers and students. At meals, instead of throwing tantrums, children enjoy their food!
Do and Become
Both education and value-orientation are meaningful only if the approach is experimental and experiential. Do and understand, do and feel, do and become form the edifice of such a method. Punishment is therefore taboo at Omega. "Can the learning and growing process be pursued without making mistakes?" asks Nirmala. She adds, "Children learn from their mistakes and develop a sense of responsibility. When the teachers or I talk to a child who has committed a mistake, the child understands the mistake and does not need to repeat it. Punishment is no solution."
Each child is uniquely a genius, believes Nirmala, a policy adopted at Omega. "There is no dull child. There is a need for teachers, therefore, to understand the potential of each child and promote their development. Someone who is good at sports, though not at academics, cannot be called dull."
With a view to creating a healthy atmosphere, the school admits children from all social and economic backgrounds. Some overseas children are also keen to study here. In fact the school aims at creating the "serene ambiance of an ashram, a place where there are no divisions of caste, religion or race".
The education methods are also innovative at Omega. Besides having a progressive curriculum, there are labs even for the languages and mathematics. The maths lab, for instance, is activity-based and application-oriented. In the English lab, children use head phones to gain better speaking skills through hearing. There are computers and LCD projectors too in the labs.
An ISO 9001:2000 accredited school, affiliated to the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education), it is now providing hostel facilities too on its nine-acre sprawling campus.
Omega has also made efforts at attempting to solve the burden of the heavy school bag, by breaking down the text books to term-wise rather than yearly portions. The school is working at a further reduction of the weight of the students' satchels.
You can get in touch with the school at 044-23862662 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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