Learning for life



March 2017

By Punya Srivatsava

Can education equip a child to build his character, acquire self-esteem, pursue happiness, and find his perfect calling? Punya Srivastava profiles a few progressive schools pursuing this ideal with passion and dedication

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Swami Vivekananda, that great Indian philosopher and venerable sanayasi, once said, “Education is the manifestation of perfection already (present) in man.”

The observation is both profound and pithy. What is education if not growing into our highest self and reaching our fullest potential; delving deep within and exploring the purpose behind taking a human birth? Education ought to be the compass that guides us along our life’s journey. It ought to be the process which enables a person to lead a successful life, which would mean being able to cope with its viccisitudes, to build healthy relationships, to find a meaningful calling, to develop one’s creativity, build one’s self-esteem and find happiness. It ought to enable a child to blossom into a well-rounded, healthy, wholesome adult who can contribute to society.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you that our education meets few of these parameters. Present-day education is largely about equipping a student for a livelihood, and not for life.

Over the years, our schools have turned into factories which compete with each other to churn out batch after batch of students who have perfected rote learning; kids who go on to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, and CAs. They take one exam after another; collect degrees and apply for jobs only for the sake of earning money. Kids as young as three are being admitted to pre-schools, and by the time they reach standard eight, are cautioned by teachers, parents and society alike to start preparing for the tenth standard board exams, whose marks will determine their lives.

From this perspective life becomes a succession of hoops a student has to leap through until he arrives at the Holy Grail of a well-paying and prestigious job. In the process the life journey becomes compressed into academics and marks-chasing, while the development of other innate talents and skills are given less weightage, character development is bypassed and the simple joy of living in the moment tarnished by the constant focus on passing exams.

Children are taught to compete, and are then categorised into boxes – winners and losers, above average and below average, intelligent and dumb, bright and dull. All these labels curb their innate creativity and sensitivity, not to mention uniqueness, and they grow up to be dysfunctional adults unable to cope with the many challenges life has in store. Society pays a huge price for the damage and destruction these adults may cause to themselves and others, starting from addictions to lawlessness and more.

A class in progress in Ukti Waldorf School, NoidaA class in progress in Ukti Waldorf School, Noida

“A sense of competition comes from a very narrow space of identity,” says Harvinder Kaur, Director, India Council for Integral Education (ICIE), Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry, adding, “and identity comes from outer sources like religion, race, or country,  which serves to segregate people.” Hence, at Auro Mirra International School, Bangalore, which Harvinder founded, competitiveness is not considered to be a virtue.

An alternative perspective

Our present evolutionary times demand a revolution in the way education is perceived and imparted today; an overhaul where the child is treated as a human being born to grow and evolve, rather than a human resource to fit into some corporate house. As African-American social reformer and statesman Fredrick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Swami Vivekananda wisely observed, “What is education? Is it book-learning? No. Is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education.”

Thankfully, quite a few people have heard and responded to his rallying cry. As always has been the case, when the conventional system becomes faulty, an alternative approach starts sprouting its wings.

The beautiful Shikshantar school. Inset: Manish Jain, Co-Founder of ShikshantarThe beautiful Shikshantar school. Inset: Manish Jain, Co-Founder of Shikshantar

Aparajita and Saloni Zutshi are two such individuals. Sisters, they both started Ukti Waldorf School in Delhi some six years back, based on Waldorf education. Steiner-Waldorf education is based on an understanding of a human being as a triumvirate of body, mind and spirit. Aparajita Zutshi says, “Holistic education is that which educates the whole child by bringing him the right knowledge at the right time. Conventional educational methods amount to little more than intellectual stimulation, in which the physical aspect of the child is considered secondary and the emotional aspect is largely ignored.”

She also points out that conventional education ignores the importance of teaching children in developmentally appropriate ways. There is a huge difference between how a four-year-old should be learning versus how a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old should be. Waldorf education recognises that a human being is a combination of thinking, feeling and doing. It also recognises that these qualities develop differently in a child over time. “Therefore, appealing directly to a preschooler’s thinking, as is done by conventional educational methods, has unhealthy consequences. Young children like to do things. They like to be active in their bodies and explore the physical environment around them. Therefore all teaching in early childhood appeals to the ‘hands’ or physical aspect of the child,” she says.

After the age of seven up till around 14 years, the child enters a second stage where they get a sense of their feelings; hence education in this period proceeds by appealing to the child’s feelings or ‘heart’, by kindling an interest in the subject matter through stories and other emotive approaches, and through that bringing the child to dry and abstract intellectual concepts. Finally, after age 14 or so, the child is considered ready to be taught intellectually.

“This approach forms the basis of the curriculum at different grades and the manner in which that curriculum is brought to the child. Appealing to a child’s feelings or thinking before they have ripened, as is done in conventional schools, hinders learning and can even be detrimental to a child’s health with lifelong consequences,” says Aparajita.

The haves and have-nots

Aparajita does have a point. I have bitter-sweet memories of my schooling. I remember sitting at my desk in standard two and crying copiously, because I was unable to solve simple division sums. Just that they didn’t seem simple to me. The whole class was wrapping up its work and queuing outside for the next period, while I was struggling with my divisions. The feeling of utter failure, probably felt for the first time, lanced my confidence and penetrated my psyche. I also remember feeling elated when in the eighth standard, my language teacher praised my essay and my writing skill. Languages were my favourite subjects, and I flourished during those classes.

And yet, I had to study science and maths till standard 12th, just so I could make something out of my life. I remember feeling a gradual sense of dejection in my 11th standard as suddenly, from being deemed an above average student by my teachers, thanks to languages and social sciences, I was considered a dismal performer in the science stream. By the time I could build some confidence and do away with a fear of failure, school was over. I have spent around 13 years living with fear and lack of self-worth.

Even today, I have to work on my confidence before making a point before someone else, as the fear of saying something wrong keeps lurking just beneath the surface. At such times, the words of Dr Geetha Narayanan, renowned educator and founder of the Bangalore-based Shristi, come rushing to my mind. Speaking at a conclave two years back, she decried the present education system that only strives to produce winners and has no place for poor performers, and does not provide holistic development to a child.

“At Auro Mirra School, we are not obsessed with marks and competition,” reiterates Harvinder, who founded the school with an aim to provide deeply transformative education to kids. Started in 2012 by Sri Aurobindo Society – Puducherry, Auro Mirra School has a student-teacher ratio of 20-25:1 which delivers a better and more comprehensive attention to a child’s growth. “There is no pressure on kids to perform in a specific way,” she says.

Ankit Modi, parent to a nine-year-old Aviansh who attends the Ukti Waldorf School in Noida, (Delhi – NCR), lauds the joy that the boy radiates after migrating from a mainstream public school in 2013.  “We feel totally blessed that our child is in Ukti’s hands. We see our son enjoying his childhood every single minute, just playing and doing things which he likes doing, without any pressure or stress. We always dreamt of our child being free, and at the same time acquiring good knowledge, being close to nature, and most importantly becoming a good, beautiful human being able to impart purpose and direction to his life,” says Ankit.

Prior to this, both parents had to sit with six-year-old Aviansh every evening and make him mug, turning him dull and irritable. He stopped drawing, a subject he was good at and enjoyed a lot. It was this downturn that prompted them to look for other options. “The same child, when given the freedom to blossom and live his childhood, has regained his creativity and sensitivity. He learns flute at school, draws to his heart’s content, and remains happy. He has also learnt the importance of working with his hands and transforming basic, raw things into beautiful creations, such as sowing small seeds, and nurturing them into beautiful plants,” says the joyous father.

At Ukti, kindergarteners look forward to going to school each day, with the joyful prospect of baking bread, making soup, drawing, cleaning, or going to a park. In grade one, they learn the flute, make knitting needles, knit, sew, walk on letters with bricks made by children themselves, learn alphabets and words by playing different games, draw them on sheets with colours, and sing beautiful songs in music class.

Schooling vs Learning

Waldorf schools apart, there is a growing movement towards the creation of an alternative model of education, currently still restricted mostly to cities.

At Auro Mirra, children are provided with a space to flower emotionally, which enables them to explore inner spaces within themselves. They have a ‘silent period’ between two classes where they are encouraged to slow down and experience silence and stillness. “All these practices are a part of experiential learning, which goes beyond curriculum, and contributes to the making of a harmonious human being,” says Harvinder Kaur. Every morning, the kids start their day with sports. “We have designed special games for kids that inculcate traits like patience, and problem solving. These activities help develop other faculties than the logical mind,” she adds. The children then proceed to their open classrooms, where nature presides. Tree branches often peek into the classrooms, while little squirrels scurry on the ground. Here the communion with nature is not merely a concept, but a living thing; kids are not locked up in air-conditioned classrooms and taught about nature, but feel and experience being one with Nature.

Kids at Auro Mirra School, enjoying themselvesKids at Auro Mirra School, enjoying themselves

Another innovative school is Shikshantar – the People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development. Manish Jain, one of the co-founders, shares how the movement was born. “We are a group of people who got together from different walks of life, and we all felt that the global system of factory-schooling is causing far more harm than good, both to individuals and to local communities. This model of education has thrown out the elders and sold out the children. It has cut people off from Nature. Worse, it is intimately tied to a destructive kind of ‘progress’, which is leaving diverse cultures far weaker and more tied to the whims and fancies of State and market institutions, stripping them of their uniqueness and power (which had lasted for millennia),” he says. The group walked out of their jobs in 1998, and after some travelling and searching, they decided to co-create an open space for exploring their questions and bringing their lives into greater alignment with their values of human dignity, social justice and ecological sustainability. Shikshantar is based in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Manish considers today’s conventional education to be a deep form of violence against peoples’ minds, bodies and spirits, because it cuts them off from nature, their families, communities, culture, work, expression, and themselves. “We view the decision to walk out (or rise out) of formal educational structures/institutions, as a thoughtful and positive choice, in the spirit of satyagraha and non-cooperation,” he says. Far from signifying incompetence, walking out and walking on demonstrates intelligence, creativity and courage of conviction. It is a powerful indication of reclaiming control over one’s own learning, and therefore, over one’s own life. It is an important step in decolonising ourselves and moving towards swaraj.

Sonam Wangchuk too had similar thoughts about conventional education which made him lay the foundation of SECMOL Alternative School in Leh. Apparently, Aamir Khan’s character in the film, 3 Idiots, was loosely based on Wangchuk, an engineer educated in mainland India. “Government schools are closing one after another in Leh because non local teachers are not able to adapt. Locals have lost faith in them and are going to any lengths to send their children to private schools in Leh,” he says. Sonam sees that this trend will inevitably lead to whole villages closing down, because parents will migrate to the nearest towns and cities for the sake of their kids’ education. “On the one hand, the kids will lose their childhood, get uprooted from their village, and usually never return, while on the other hand, with the kids and the mother gone, old grandparents will end up having to work on the farms till their dying day. And with their death, the village dies,” worries Sonam.

To counter this problem, he founded the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in 1988. “Almost 99 per cent of children enrolled in Ladakhi state-run schools flunk their exams every year, because of the alien education they are made to imbibe. SECMOL made efforts to publish books in the local language, and primary kids were taught using local allegories and contexts,” says Wangchuk. When education got local, kids developed an interest in learning through books. SECMOL Alternative School has an eco-friendly campus near Leh where the students are the primary administrators – from running the kitchen through organic produce from their school garden, to building their classrooms on their own.

In a similar spirit of independence, Manish Jain and his partners also founded Swaraj (rule over oneself) University in Udaipur. Here, individuals don’t enrol for one more degree or certificate, but to learn and share from Nature, and local communities. The focus is on recognising the infinite potential of each human being, and enabling them to continuously ‘learn, unlearn, and relearn’ by developing their capacities for deep thinking, reflecting, feeling, understanding, sharing, creating, and taking personal responsibility. The last term is of utmost importance as there are many young individuals who are not able to realise their dreams and take solace in blaming everyone around them for their own perceived failure.

Learning beyond the subjects

Character-building has to be the bulwark of the educational system because it alone will enable a person to steer safely through life, making the right choices and adhering to one’s principles. “We believe this can happen by inculcating family values in children, giving them a positive and happy childhood, teaching them compassion, and exposing them to activities, books and travel. Also, by making them aware of future challenges like pollution, safe drinking water, and a stress-free life. Each child is an opportunity to contribute to society and nation building,” says Amit Dagar. He started his own school, Vidyantriksh, in Bhiwani, Haryana, affiliated to the state board, along with his wife, Aarti, who has a PhD in school curriculum. Disturbed by the lack of relevance of the present educational system to the real needs of children, the couple left their jobs, went to their native place in Bhiwani, and took a loan to start their school in 2011.

Today, Vidyantriksh has a strength of 500 students with 30 staff members. “We aren’t completely an alternative school, though. Schools like ours which have limited strength find such an approach difficult to survive and sustain. And then we have our education system and parents who stress too much on marks,” he says, adding, “I seriously believe that the government should take over all private schools. Only the government should be providing education.”

Such an idea could help revamp the educational system thoroughly and implement a holistic model available to all children. This is exactly what the Finnish government has done. The Finnish education system is considered to be among the best educational models in the world.

Children start school at the age of seven – an age by which they are ready to learn and focus. Before that, they enjoy their childhood by playing and exploring. This first year is followed by only nine years of compulsory school. Everything after ninth grade is optional and at the age of 16, the students can choose from: a) three years of upper secondary education where they prepare for matriculation tests that enables them to apply in Universities b) Vocational education c) join the workforce. There is only one mandatory standardised test in Finland, taken when children are 16. According to a study, 43 per cent of Finnish high-school students go to vocational schools.

For the first six grades, the teacher remains the same. This helps the teacher to get completely familiar with each child and give them consistency, care and individualised attention. The system ensures that they employ only the best teachers as primary education is the most competitive degree to get in Finland. Parents trust the teachers to be highly qualified, trained, and gifted individuals, and treat them with trust and respect.

Teachers are also encouraged through innovative teaching workshops to use their own creativity in teaching. For example, a math lesson for primary school can be taken outside the classroom and children can be asked to solve a math problem using stones and sticks.

Also, there is no differentiation between quantative subjects such as maths and sciences and qualitative subjects like languages. The curriculum is decided by the teachers-school-and local authorities together, not by the government. However, the Finnish education is fully funded by the state.

Another newer set of policies are enabling students to opt for self-assessment and peer assessment, with an aim to encourage self-awareness and offer constructive feedback to others.

Indigenous models

We too, can follow the lead of the Finnish model by developing our own indigenous models. Technological advancements, when ably supported by the threefold participation of teachers, parents and the local community, open newer avenues for a child’s learning process. Going out and visiting local community spaces opens the mind far more than sitting in a class and reading and memorising about them. “We can build a holistic learning system by offering a taste of it to the larger community through fairs and festivals. By offering meaningful workshops on parenting and child development to the public. By offering teacher training workshops and seminars to teachers from mainstream schools. By offering holistic activity classes for children outside our school,” lists Aparajita.

Auro Mirra too has adopted an independent teaching model that supports children to develop their innate qualities such as discipline, instead of imposing them. “In our school, children recognise the value of discipline through experiential learning; a teacher’s role is confined only to guiding, facilitating and helping them. The students themselves decide what they would like to learn in a class,” says Harvinder Kaur, adding, “We have introduced Sanskrit in the curriculum from the very beginning as they give the children a unique, unparalleled base in learning languages and developing the powers of the mind. We have gone on to create a new paradigm rather than following the familiar path.”

Ganesh Vancheeswaran, whose son was admitted to Auro Mirra in June 2015, says, “The minute we saw the campus and met the teachers, we thought that this school was so like us! There was a feeling of homecoming,” he says.

Srishti Institute of Arts, Design, and Technology, Bangalore, also follows an enlightened and inclusive approach to education. “We believe in extending education beyond the ‘gated’ and the ‘preserved’; it should be ‘permeable’ and ‘porous’, allowing students to work at the level of the street and the bazaar, and to explore and experiment with the textures of the rural and the urban,” says Dipnkar Khanna, a faculty member who aligns philosophical and psychological elements with the arts and design curriculum. The school is founded by Dr Geetha Narayanan. Its culture encourages thinking, questioning and experimenting to harness the artistic and intellectual potential of each individual. Dr Narayanan’s Mallya Aditi International School in Bangalore is Srishti’s sister initiative where students can take up eclectic subject combinations _ art and design, economics, sociology, business, social work, medicine, all the branches of science, mathematics.

Ayush Srivastava from Delhi is pursuing an MBA in HR from the School of Open Learning or SOIL for similar reasons. “After working in the hospitality industry for a few years, I had realised that to get a better understanding of the nuances of business I needed to pursue an MBA. But looking at the mainstream colleges which act as placement agencies discouraged me. When I found out about SOIL, its philosophy and approach towards creating inspired leaders, I was instantaneously attracted to it. The institute focuses on a holistic development of individuals. Even the selection process revolves around finding the right personality fit rather than theoretical knowledge,” he says.

SOIL has some unique features that distinguish it from other MBA colleges _ like the Self-Leadership course, the Social Innovation Programme – where students spend one day every week towards helping NGOs in bettering their management, weeklong wellness trips to the Himalayas, the self-exploratory theatre workshop and the Inspired Leadership Forum. “We go through a curriculum which lays equal focus on management subjects and personal well-being. I have not heard of any institute which has yoga as a subject,” says Ayush.

These small and individual initiatives can be seen as the sight of the first swallows that augur summer. Surely, they will give rise to more and more shifts until finally the whole system itself is renewed. The thought of schoolchildren revelling in their studies and learning to be balanced adults should surely drive all of us to strive to make this ideal a reality. Balanced adults will create a balanced, happy and harmonious society, and there this no reason why we should settle for less.

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