Mainstream schools have evolved into a business. As such, the many non traditional schools sprouting across the country offer respite. Melissa Nazareth explores the alternative route.
Schooling can be a traumatic experience for many. Not for me! I was a straight A-student and teachers’ pet. Sure, I faced my set of challenges like certain subjects I disliked or waking up early in the morning. But overall, I didn’t really struggle because I had good grades and popularity among friends to spur me on. I was always told I’m a ‘good student’ and teachers even made me responsible to help ‘weak students’. So, that’s the kind of mindset I grew up with.
In 2005, moving to Mumbai, a big market with stiff competition, ripped the image I had of myself, apart. While pursuing my higher education, I realised I wasn’t as ‘good’ as I was told and had come to believe. I was in denial for three years before I went on to do my post graduation. Even those two years were as humbling as my graduation days but, thanks to the advice offered by a certain professor, I knew better. He said: if one learns by rote or restricts oneself to university prescribed text books, one will have, at the end of the day, gotten a degree. But if one understands the concepts being taught and learns how to use them in practical life, one will have gotten an education.
The Sarang way of life
Gautham of Sarang, a semi-residential, alternative school being revived in Attappady near Palakkad, Kerala, has a similar view of mainstream schools – they offer literacy and not necessarily an education. Son of Founders, Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi, he recalls how his childhood was way different from that of his brothers and sisters (terms he uses to refer to the neighbourhood children that he grew up with) who went to mainstream schools. As government school teachers, Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi realised that formal education had serious limitations rendering students unprepared to face life. They dreamed to offer students a co-creative environment and quit their jobs to lay the foundation of a rural university. It took the couple 15 painstaking years to transform the barren land they bought into a thriving eco-system with a school for 50 students. Despite such a radical beginning, in about three years, the school was debt-ridden and had to be shut down.
Gautham and his wife, Anuradha, are now working towards reviving their parents’ dream. Though they’re still in the process of re-establishing the structure, they have been organising activities and training programmes in tents. “We get quite a few enquiries every year and understand that we can’t wait until we have a full fledged campus,” says Gautham. Sarang creates synergy among parents, teachers and children. “It’s important to train parents to provide an environment at home, in keeping with Sarang’s so that the child doesn’t get confused,” says Gautham. Typically, children along with their families spend a few days every month on campus as part of the parents’ training.
Unlike mainstream schools, which have an institutionalised set up where an authority decides what must be taught, Sarang takes into consideration students’ interest and pace of learning. “If a child wants to learn about a particular topic, we organise a field trip or workshop around that topic so that the other children can learn too,” says Gautham. Curious as to how Sarang standardises its syllabus, I ask Gautham how they manage teaching students of different age groups, together. “We don’t have standardised course content but expand and adapt it to the changing times. Our students are encouraged to explore beyond what is taught in the classroom. As parents and teachers, it is our duty to look out for changes in the world, understand how those changes will affect sustainable survival and formulate learning environments accordingly.”
The role of a teacher
Miraaya Holistic Growth Centre in Mumbai works alongside schools to bring life readiness into (mainstream) school curriculum and also runs its own classes that students may attend after school hours. Having franchisees in Tardeo, Lokhandwala, Pune and Chennai, Miraaya is committed to developing children’s emotional quotient, has an ideal teacher to student ratio of 1:8, and uses an array of mindfulness techniques to help children become aware of their inner world. Says Co-founder, Dr Nidhi Bajaj Gupta, an award winning physiotherapist and Life and Leadership coach for children and their parents, “Nature, relationships, animals, plants all form an extremely important aspect of everything we do at the centre. Sharing an example, Megha Bajaj, Co-founder and an award winning author, columnist and educationist says, “We had a student who believed she couldn’t write well. We helped her open up a little each day. We sat outside surrounded by nature, which put her at ease, and we taught her to use words to express her thoughts. She went on to publishing a short piece in a popular children’s newspaper!” Nidhi shares another interesting episode where a student had a complex about her dark complexion. “I wanted her to get over it in a beautiful way,” she says. “We brought black and white rabbits to class and let the children interact with them and share their experiences. In the end, we asked this girl if the colours of the rabbits had in any way affected her experience. She truly understood and accepted that it’s not the colour of our skin but what is within us that matters.”
Teachers and mentors play a very influential role in students’ lives, which is why Dr. Coomi Vevaina, Founder Director of the Centre for Connection Education and Management, believes that teachers first need to understand their own selves. “My new online programme, due to launch sometime next year, will enable teachers to pin-point what causes them to think and behave the way they do. Once they accomplish that, they will find it easier to accept the current generation’s thoughts and ideas, which are different from their own, and honour and respect them. For instance, instead of getting students to learn by their method of, say, Q&A, teachers can try a different method that children prefer, like group work.”
Speaking of the mainstream education system, she says that they are focusing more on cosmetic changes like technology when they must be focusing on students’ interests. She goes on to explain how scientists have proved that we are hard wired for cooperation not competition but the current system is based only on competition. “We’re preparing children for our definition of success – getting a good job – but not life, and, because of this, even the best of graduates with the highest of marks end up being failures.” Coomi believes that alternative schools are doing a great job but must be contextualised and modified to today’s times. “One of the best alternative philosophies regulates that computers can’t be used in classes up to the age of nine or 10 years but that’s absolutely impossible today,” she says, giving an example.
Rishi Gurukulam in Katarkhadak village, Pune, is a good example of a contemporary alternative school that combines the best of eastern and western teaching techniques along with contemporary technological advances. Manoj Lekhi, who is on the managing team for the school’s operations, says, “We focus on character building so that by the time a child leaves, he or she is ready for life ethically, spiritually and technically.”
Raisa Romer started teaching at an international school in China earlier this year, which helped her assess the Indian education system from a global point of view. Before moving to China, she worked in various capacities including teacher, teacher training coordinator, educational consultant and curriculum developer in Bangalore. “I think the biggest problem we face is that we don't have a common language in India. That makes it very difficult to share best practices across the nation and pool our resources. I have always believed that it's important for a child to learn in the language they are most comfortable with, but in today's multicultural world, that virtually leads to a handicap, wherein a child's expression of his or her intelligence and capability is restricted to only the places and people that understand his or her language, which is grossly unfair.”
Another problem she highlights is support and pay for teachers. “Parents must understand that educating a child is not solely the teachers’ job but a team effort by parents and teachers. Also, teachers need to be paid more for the work they do. This will elevate the profession, give teachers more time to hone their craft, and reduce stress considerably.” Seth Godin, in his book, Linchpin, rightly writes ‘Great teachers are really wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organised to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.’ Raisa further stresses that groups making important decisions regarding educational policies in India must have more representation from educators and the youth.
The alternative route
Sharing her views on alternative schools, Raisa says, “They are a great place to pioneer advances in education that mainstream schools can learn from. Since they are not tied down by the 'this is how it's done' mantra, they can implement new research quickly and with, hopefully, positive results.” One such out-of-the-box idea is ‘peer to peer teaching’ that is followed at Rishi Gurukulam. Students who don’t understand a particular concept are taught by other students. “Children approach learning as fun if they are with friends and there is no superiority or inferiority in such a set up,” says Manoj. Founded by the late Guruji Shree Rishi Prabhakar, an aeronautical engineer, computer scientist and MBA, as well as Founder of the Siddha Samadhi Yoga Programme, Rishi Gurukulam aspires to create world leaders with the humility of a saint, knowledge of a learned person and wisdom of a guru. In addition to Pune, the school also has campuses in Vishakhapatnam and Bangalore where students enjoy work-play balance, close bond with classmates and teachers, opportunities for meditation and silence, abundance of natural environment, educational tours and integrated learning (group activities, peer to peer teaching), a lot of freedom, life coaching, equality among students et al.
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