I am going to introduce you to a Nai Taleem school. Since it would be a rather tall claim on one’s part that a school is based on Gandhi’s philosophy – without the capacities to understand the philosophy well and to bring it into practice – let me just say that the school takes inspiration from Gandhi’s ideas of education, which are called Nai Taleem. This historical idea of education – which is not just a type of pedagogy but also a philosophy – was tried out on a large scale, in almost 50,000 schools in our country. After the Kothari Commission, we did not continue with it for various reasons. However, we will not go into those reasons at the moment.
Ananda Niketan runs in the same premises in which a historical experiment in education was inaugurated by Gandhi (in 1937) and was later carried out by Ariyanayakam-ji and Asha Devi Ariyanayakam. E W Ariyanayakam had come from Sri Lanka and initially worked with Tagore. Asha Devi also worked there in Shantiniketan. When Gandhi went to Shantiniketan, he requested both of them to come to Sevagram; and that is how this historical experiment was initiated. The school closed down in 1974 and nothing happened till 2005. During 2003, I and some friends were deliberating about education; and we thought that we need to look at Nai Taleem again – in today’s context; and that maybe this is the place where we can again start the Nai Taleem school. So that is how we restarted Ananda Niketan.
Let me now introduce you to the school. Nai Taleem believes in taking care of the head, the heart and the hands; and we believe this approach is still relevant. It is a holistic education of body, mind and spirit. We can’t look at education as merely an intellectual exercise – it is for life. So naturally, we have to deal with life holistically. And we have to see that children develop a holistic personality. It is in this sense that Nai Tallem is a philosophy – not just pedagogy. Its vision has two components: (i) holistic development of an individual by taking balanced care of head, hands and heart and that (ii) this is for a non-violent, just, cooperative and sustainable society.
Probably this is the point that we really need to think about today. The major components of education are prakruti (nature), productive work and samaaj (society). All three components are to be well-integrated into the learning process of the child. The principles of Nai Taleem, as suggested by people who have studied and practiced Nai Taleem are as follows.
It is an integration of gyaan (knowledge) and karma (action) resulting in joy. It is an education for non-violence. It is founded on freedom and mutual cooperation. And the aim is to be free from fear. It is for self-reliance of body needs and for independent and critical thinking and wisdom. It believes that education should develop social consciousness among students, as well as the attitude and habits of doing things in cooperation with others. The social principle of Nai Taleem is that all human beings are to be equally respected and that education should be intimately and harmoniously related to life. The goal of education is to achieve self-discipline and build character and one should not be dependent on externally-forced discipline. Nai Taleem is a continuous process of learning. It should vary from day to day and from region to region. We can’t have a single way, or one format or framework – or expect the same form which can be used everywhere. It is for all ages and it is not meant just for villagers, but is for everyone irrespective of whether they live in the urban or rural areas. Ultimately, it is a quest for truth.
Here I would also like to briefly mention a few pioneers of Nai Taleem – the couple Ariyanayakam-ji and Asha Devi Ariyanayakam; Zakir Husain was the chairperson of Hindustani Taleemi Sangha which was responsible for developing curriculum and implementing it at the national level; and there were also others like Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Marjorie Sykes and so on – but I will not go into the details.
Let me now come to the school that we run today. It is in Sevagram Ashram, in the same premises where the earlier experiment took place in 1937-1974. It is a small school with 165 children from pre-primary to Class 7 at the moment. The number of teachers is 18 including both full-time and part-time teachers. Students mainly come from lower socio-economic groups. It is a neighbourhood school. Our children speak the local dialect which is a little different from the standard Marathi. Almost ten per cent of the students are from the border area and speak a dialect close to Hindi. Ninety-five per cent of parents mainly work in agriculture or the service sector. Others are vendors, domestic workers and farm, factory or hospital labourers.
How do we design our curriculum and what kind of activities do we have? Productive work and work in social milieu are considered as work. We have productive work such as gardening, vastrakala – which is an assembly of different kinds of activities, cleaning and waste recycling, introduction to simple machines like the bicycle, and computer education. Then there are activities around self-governance. We do go into disciplinary learning of languages – Marathi, Hindi and English – Marathi being the language of instruction. We also teach Mathematics, Environmental Studies, Ecology, Science and Social Sciences. In the earlier stages, the subjects are taught together – art, drawing, painting, paper-cutting, folding, needle-and-thread, scientific-toys making, music, dance, drama, games and sports etc.
The approach is as follows: learning is encouraged through craft and work, from nature, through life, for life and wisdom and by doing and exploration. And the methods that are used are: learning from the society and with the adults at various times, learning from textbooks and other books, learning with the help of audio-visual aids as and when needed.
Why do we use textbooks? Here is where I would like to come to that. Children come from, as I mentioned, lower socio-economic groups. So textbooks are the only set of books that they can have with them or which they can take home. That is the reason why we have textbooks. Books provide graded learning material to some extent (though they are not wholly essential).With their help, all children have certain common levels of educational material; and thus, certain aspects of moving together as a group, becomes easier with the textbooks’ use.
Additionally, teachers find it easier to use the books as a starting point because many teachers are not trained in Nai Taleem. They may be trying to explore things themselves – what are these (Nai Taleem) methods, what are these ways of learning? They themselves have to learn these things. And that is why when they are not ready to use Nai Taleem ways very creatively, text books can become a beginning – a starting point. And then they can gradually reach out to different aspects in real-life and world. We have teachers coming from very ordinary, lower middle-class backgrounds – a judicious combination of the right material from textbooks, other books, materials and activities, we feel, can enrich the learning process.
Moreover, all teachers are not equally hardworking and creative in designing learning opportunities and developing teaching-learning material on their own. This is also one of the reasons why we have to begin with textbooks. When we say that there is a lot of peer group learning – there are some teachers who are new and who are just beginning, and those who are not inspired enough to do things on their own; and there are also some very sincere workers and creative people. When they all sit together, there is a lot of interaction; which in some ways develops motivation in those who may not have such inclinations in the beginning. There can thus be a collective process of learning. This also helps to build up a different kind of school culture – which is very essential.
Why don’t we limit ourselves to textbooks? As I said, we have to deal with life. So it is only natural that we can’t limit ourselves to textbooks. Moreover, textbooks do not always help children relate to their real-life situations; whereas things can be meaningful only when they relate to their experiences and their lives. Such learning experiences can be more enjoyable; situated, life-related and meaningful; child-centered; creative and skill-based (and children do like building their own skills- they enjoy it); participatory; value-based and self-disciplining.
I would like to show you some photographs of how children work. These are related to gardening. Every picture could give you a glimpse of the amount of learning that might be taking place (as they engage in the activities). For example, they are sowing cotton in the first picture – for this they need to know how parallel lines are drawn, how many seeds will be needed – many things can be taught while they learn how to sow seeds. They are marking the plots in the second photograph – they do a lot of Maths here. Then comes the observation phase – they measure the growth and they observe other related things. They come up with the ruler and they measure it, weigh it and so on. Here again, in this photograph, the teachers are working with the children. No work that is not done by the teachers can be given to the children. So the authority of the teachers breaks there – the teacher is with the children. And in fact, s/he can be a good role model as well. That is something very essential, I feel.
Many times we feel that working with soil is something which children would not like. In most schools we want our children to be very nicely dressed in uniform, with shoes and socks and ties. You find in this picture that they are transplanting onions from the original bed to this bed. And there is mud and they are sowing. And there is so much of activity – and they love it. Whenever they have free time, they run to their plots and they see how the plants are growing.We have some small experiences (like these). These all come from the curriculum – because in the 4th and 5th classes and those levels, they have farming and many concepts related to farming. So we take this as a craft.
For instance, this is mushroom cultivation – a month-long project. It gave them very good experience and helped them understand what is parasitic growth and other related concepts – actually experiencing things and growing, say, 10kg of mushrooms which were added to their khichdi, and thus they could have more enriched khichdi as well in the afternoons.
A number of experiments can be conducted along with the activities – for work is not without any learning. A good, planned work-activity can be a rich learning experience for children. Some of the experiments which can be done along with the agricultural activities, for example, are the following: children can compare the growth that takes place in the shade and in sunlight; they can learn from composting that is done to produce manure; they can observe the water in the well in every season and try to calculate its volume, and understand what relations it has with water conservation efforts by contour bunding and things like that – many things can be included. They can also see the effect of green cover on the land – how it affects soil and water that we need to conserve. And they also have to write (about their experiences, learning etc.) along with all this – so it helps them learn a lot of scientific concepts and relate them to real-life situations.
Children engage in cooking as well, once a month – and it is planned very systematically with graded experiences till Class 7. This is burfee which is made for Raksha Bandhan. The experiences and learning that they go through – they learn about materials and things, proportions, budget, sharing responsibilities (who will do what), time and duration during which they have to finish the work, selection of material, purchase, record-keeping of the expenses, selecting the right size of vessels, cleaning the vessels, preparation of burfee, cutting it to the right size, garnishing, cleaning – post-preparatory cleaning, Science, Mathematics, nutritional analysis, social and cultural dimensions of the event and expression in different languages.
They do the work without any gender bias; and they have to be sensitized towards these dimensions while cooking is done. It is also a very useful way of taking to children about what happens in their homes and families and sensitizing them to social issues. Inside the class, again it is quite activity-oriented. A lot of geometrical concepts are used when they go for gardening. The activities can be done as a group work. So a child can be tested – or a child can test himself or herself – on the amount of effort s/he puts in. They have to cooperate with each other; and they can help each other in learning.
Relating to real-life situations is extremely important. You see the rally here – this is something which the children came up with. Anna Hazare and come up with the ideas of corruption-free India. In Delhi, there were rallies and large demonstrations which the children saw regularly on TV, and there was a lot of discussion in the school on the issues. And one day, when I was working in my office, children from Classes 5 and 4 came to me and said we feel that we should organize a public protest too. So I said, ‘What do you understand about corruption?’
And they said corruption was the adoption of wrongful means; and we don’t want anyone to do that, which is why we want to take out this protest march. And there was much debate on who the wrongdoers were – and that continued for almost two days. Was it only the prominent people whom we saw in the news, or did it include the likes of us? In the latter case, what were the nature of the wrongs we committed as children, as teachers and as parents? Several issues came up during these deliberations. Was it all right to point fingers at others alone? Shouldn’t we start with ourselves if we wanted to root out corruption?
Also, taking out a protest march would necessitate the right slogans, the right songs. Which ones could be used? So we tried to understand many of the slogans that were used in Anna’s movement. Some of them seemed to take a puristic stand and only point fingers at others, absolving oneself of any wrongdoing whatsoever. So the discussion moved to whether these slogans ought to be used. Finally, they decided against them. Could we make our own slogans, then? And the children made their slogans, picked the songs, and our rally took place.
You are probably unaware that until this year, we were denied the status of a school just because Maharashtra state took a stand that there was no need for teaching in Marathi. Since these days children prefer to study in the English medium schools (they say), we need not have Marathi medium schools. Thereore even the schools that were already in existence had to wait 5-7 years for recognition, and this year many such schools – including ours – were finally officially recognized.
So it was a real revolutionary process that the children were involved in. They acquired a deep understanding of the issue – it was not as if they were doing something just because the teachers had asked them to. Why learning through mother-tongue is important, why regional languages are important, why cultural diversity is important, why learning English is also important but but learning as a language and learning through the language are two different things, and are we really going to learn well in English? – All these issues were discussed and there was experiential understanding built up together. And they participated in the debates in the issues along with their parents.
In the kind of teaching where textbook instructs children to ‘do this, do that’; the learning get reduced in status. Parents could feel and understand that. Some of our parents also feel that since the children are involved in so many activities, their learning could be adversely affected to some extent. So how do we start then? From their experiences. When children come to us, it is not as if they can learn only through books and lessons. A child comes with a lot of experience and a child has one’s own emotional world. If they start from there – through picture-reading and such exercises – children learn a lot rather easily, and make considerable progress.
This is a first standard child’s observation of the number of things in the picture. The child has made the observations and the teacher has noted them. This is an exercise where children apply various adjectives to explain each-other’s personality. There are several games involving blends or fused letters that children can play with ease. These games have a wide range, including how one fused letter can lead to another. So, children easily pick up much of their vocabulary by analyzing such situations and then practicing them through books, newspapers etc. Here are some poems by the children. Can you make your own story by looking at a picture? It can be one’s very own – different for each child. Here you see some such stories by Class 2 students. Then there is a poem on spinach, with which the child has, virtually, made parathas, raita or some such preparation.
Now, how can we possibly gauge the quality of language from these exercises? If a child reads a book, will s/he be able to summarize it? Probably that is the highest level of comprehension that we can expect. Bahuroop Gandhi is a small book – well, not so small – it is about 150 pages. The children read it, and we asked them to write a summary. Here is a sample of their work. As you can see – and I can read it out later, if you like – they have beautifully written about the various aspects in distinct paragraphs. This is in Class 7. We would expect this to happen in Class 6 and Class 7.
This is about democracy. Whenever we have an important day, we make it a point that the day becomes a learning experience by having multiple news items or books, or talking about things that people have said about that day. We bring in all of these as tools, to think about the significance or relevance of the day. Democracy cannot be celebrated simply by doing drills and singing a few songs. We have to help them think of democracy – and help them engage with such fundamental questions as ‘What is democracy?’
Around such days of significance (such as Independence day or Republic day) many articles and speeches from various people are also available. If we do a judicious selection from among these, we can have conversations with children on related issues for about a week. It was after one such session and interviews with a few people, that a 7th standard student came up with this article titled My thoughts on Republic Day. This is a legal size sheet of paper on which the child has written this long account, neatly divided into paragraphs. It speaks of the life of a girl from the migratory Paardhi community. She was an activist. It speaks of how the Paardhi community lives; and the kinds of situations the girl faced in the course of her life. From there, the account moves to a country like Uganda and dwells on how one’s freedom – of speech, expression and life itself – is threatened under a dictatorship. Obviously, the article has been written after acquiring an understanding of alternative forms of government and the issues related to them. Textbooks are a part of our curriculum and we haven’t gone outside of them. The entire discourse comes under the realm of constitutional values (that are part of the school textbook).
There is this short story called ‘Kasturba’ in the Class 5 Marathi textbook. Once they had read it, we said that we now know a lot about Kasturba, but how much do we know about our own ba – our mother? Have we ever tried to ask her about her life? I have to read this out to you; this was written by a little girl called Saundarya, who studies in the 5th standard and tried to understand her mother. She lives in Wardha with her maternal grandmother; and her mother works in the fields in a village. She writes – and I translate:
I really love my mother. When she was little, she was a fun-loving child. She always walked to school. She lived in Bhiwapur, where her family farmed their land. Both of them shower a lot of love on us, the three sisters. We help them out with their chores. If I miss out some of the dirt when I sweep the floor, my mother sweeps it as soon as she sees it. She makes beautiful rangolis. When we ask her which of her tasks she enjoys best, she says she loves working in the fields.
When my mother and aunt fought, my father would sometimes scold my mother. I felt bad about that. But most of the time, they lived peacefully. My father leaves for the fields at six in the morning and returns at eight in the evening. This creates a lot of tension for my mother. She hurries through her chores and then joins him in working on the crops.
She is very good at weaving, plastering and planting sugarcane. She works very fast and efficiently, and she is very good natured. Everyone in our family admires her for her good nature. ‘Today is Sunday and I won’t go to the fields’ – this is something she never says. Whenever she comes to Sevagram, she brings sweets for me. Many a time, we eat our meals first, and there isn’t enough left for my mother and my grandmothers, who eat later.
Because of working in the fields, both my mother and father have become very thin.
That is the last sentence of her write-up. A child from the 5th standard is trying to delve deep to understand her parents. What I would actually like to say is life is much greater than textbooks. And the purpose of education is to equip them to lead a better life. So let us greet it with love.
I would like to read one or two things if you permit me to, and if there is time, before we go for discussion. Otherwise we will break here. Just children’s readings – two or three minutes: I have held on to these because many a times, we underestimate a child’s ability to think. Children can think deeply, if only we try. I mentioned self-governance earlier, and our school is governed by students and teachers together. So if a teacher makes a mistake, a student has the liberty of pointing it out. Similarly, if a child makes a mistake, the teacher can say that it is getting too much for him/her.
I have already spoken about the kind of exchanges we had when discussing self-governance. Last year, these discussions were focused around agriculture, which is a key area of our school activities. Several articles had appeared regarding the Maharashtra government’s approval of 32 liquor factories where locally grown jowar grains would be converted to liquor. There was a condition, though, that the said liquor would only be sold within the state, and not outside.
There were opposing views regarding this stand. Some argued that farmers were making no money in any case; so where was the harm in selling grains to make liquor? Another group, while agreeing that the larger system was unfair to farmers, said that the grains sold would be converted to liquor which would be sold within Maharashtra. Since the elite would continue to drink foreign liquors, the local brew, being easily available in grocery stores, would make its way back to the farmers and laborers and cause a further drain in their finances.
The discussion then moved to the effect of liquor on families. About half the children had fathers who were occasional drinkers. They were also aware of the consequences, in terms of family affairs, when some of these men turned into addicts. What I am reading out now is written by Sangharsh Patil – a Dalit student in the 7th standard. Those days, there was extensive coverage on the depletion of soil and its nutrients in Maharashtra. He writes:
Ours is an agricultural country and is famous worldwide as one. We had beautiful crops. The land was beautiful too, and rich in nutrients. However, that is no longer so. The food we eat today is merely cooked grains – nothing more. We therefore do not get enough of our essential nutrients. Organic compost is not used extensively and hence the soil is unable to absorb its essential nutrients. Like our bodies, the earth too is experiencing malnutrition and losing its ability to fight the ailments that afflict its crops. There are reports that the soil in 278 sub-divisions is deficient in urea and that in 128 it is deficient in nitrate. I feel that the only way we can counter these ills is by using organic compost on a large-scale, regular soil testing and spreading the word that chemical fertilizers alone are not enough. We also use more than optimum amounts of pesticides. The money from these goes to the companies; and our farmers are driven to commit suicide to escape the burden of their debts. (You would perhaps know that we come from the Vidarbha region where farmers are still committing suicide – it is almost every day in news.)
If we pay any attention to the health of our land, we can all get good food crops and there will be no need to import foodgrains from abroad. If they get a good yield in spite of investing less money, farmers will no longer need to commit suicide. Our land will be protected and India’s future will be bright. I feel that we have to give due urgency to protect the fertility of our soil. There is no person on earth who can survive without food. So the condition of our farmers and the health of their land – both need to be given their due priority.
This is the understanding the child has got through experience and by reading. And it comes as a part of curriculum also, because he has all these aspects in the curriculum. But it has to be made more experiential. And I think that – Rohit-ji mentioned that if there are many things that come into a child’s belief system, the child is better able to understand and believe them – I do not claim that whatever a child writes is necessarily the whole truth but none of us have complete truth with us. So whatever understanding the child has, that is the child’s understanding; and I think we should respect it at times.
The next is on boy-girl equality or man-woman equality:
“It is only the girls who are asked to work in the house. Boys don’t do a thing. Even when boys are reluctant to learn, education is forced on them; but girls, however willing to learn, are told they don’t need an education. The father and brothers keep rebuking the girl, while boys are lauded for no reason. Why do we have such discrimination? This is a question that always bothers me.
Our society always treats the woman as inferior. The only basis for comparison between the sexes should be their qualities. If a woman is ill-treated by her family, she should rebel against it. The men of the house should not torment or rebuke their women. Men and women should make all decisions together. No man should consider a woman weak and no woman should compromise on her self-confidence.
He then speaks of his own family. His father is an addict and gives his mother a tough time:
When my father is unwell, he simply goes to sleep. And my mother doesn’t tell anyone about her troubles. My father often comes home drunk.
At this point, he says something interesting:
Some women beat up their husbands at such times. But I feel that they should not beat their men. There is a test which can determine the gender of a child during pregnancy. If it happens to be a girl, the baby is killed in the womb itself. Or, if a girl is born, the woman is thrown out of the house.
We have a teacher who delivered a girl child and was thrown out of her home in Bihar because of it. And now she works with us. There was a situation where they had to understand this. There are various issues involved in this – there was extensive coverage of how doctors were using machines to conduct sonographic tests and carrying out many illegal abortions. Around this context, the child says:
What cruelty this is! I feel that it is a shameful thing for humanity. I believe that such tests should not be conducted and vehemently opposed if any such instance comes to one’s notice. What is a girl’s crime for which we need to kill her? If we go on like this, god will never forgive us.
There are some things – some other photographs – which we will quickly skim through to see how we deal with other dimensions that I have not touched upon. Clay work, cleaning, and this is about cooking in which girls and boys have to participate without any gender bias, a lot of measuring, weighing, stitching and embroidery. Boys do beautiful embroidery. And I have to tell you that it is not just a woman’s domain.
Paper-making – to minimize the trash that gets generated in our school, it is converted to a slurry, which is used to make handmade paper for craft work. Here idlis are being made to understand the fermentation process; and this is washing. This is preparation of compost – for this, the children need to segregate the waste materials. This is spinning. We don’t do this because we expect a child to wear only khadi but to drive home the fact that cotton is an environment-friendly material, most suited to the conditions in our area. Besides, the small machine gives the child a first-hand experience of hand-eye coordination and makes it easier for them to understand several concepts in physics. And this is the marketing of produce grown by the children.
Devika: Hello, Sushma. I did go to the school in Wardha just 2-3 months ago. You were not there that day. My experiences of the school that day were very different from what you are showing today. I didn’t see any of this – so I was looking at it with great curiosity – the things that you were showing us. And I am sure all this has been happening for a long time because of the way that the children are engaged. However, I have a question – Gandhi started thinking about education in Tolstoy’s ashram in South Africa. And when he came to Sevagram in around 1937, in the heat of the independence movement, he wrote this article in The Harijan where he talked about education.
And he talked about education – more as a response to his own experiences with English education, as well as colonialism; but he also wanted to actually keep craft as the centre. He wanted to keep craft right at the top of the pedagogical processes, where he was saying that it’s around the craft that all education must happen. And he further said that the teacher must necessarily be a crafts-person. There has to be the hunar (skill/talent) as they were calling it, as Vinoba-ji – Vinoba Bhave – later talked about the hunar of the teacher, where the child learns with the teacher and there is a sharing of the craft and the hunar through which the child will learn History, Geography, Maths, Language and so on.
This was the basic principle of Nai Taleem. I will not say that I understand Gandhi very well, but based on whatever I understand – it was to actually rule away the differences between teaching and learning. And also between knowledge and work, more importantly – which is what Vinoba-ji said again and again in those days in Wardha.
So, what I have seen in your presentation is actually a school which is doing a lot of experiments with children; which, in my work across the country, I have seen a lot of schools doing today. Full credit to what you are doing – and not to take away anything from what you are saying – but a lot of schools would be engaged in this kind of processes and this kind of activities. So my question is that why would you call it Nai Taleem? Why would you continue to call it Nai Taleem when Krishna Kumar himself has said that the 1960s and the Nehruvian era which brought in the change of economy and a different phase, and which brought in the industrialized West into the agriculture of India actually killed Nai Taleem and the basic education philosophy of Gandhi prevalent at that time?
So my question is – in doing all this how are you actually bringing in this whole idea about the craft and the hunar and the talent of a crafts teacher who would, through her craft, actually be able to teach all subjects?
Ganesh: I am not going into the philosophical questions of what Gandhi asked. This is more about defining. What do you define as a classroom when you think that field work is also defined as a classroom because there is learning happening there? How do you define textbooks from your point of view? If classrooms are also free – is it a physical form of textbooks or is there another notion of textbooks? That is one. And the second question is what are your assessment-practices – when the children are involved in a whole lot of things?
Arvind: I think it is very creditable work and maybe there are two parts to the thing – one is a philosophical part and then there is the actual running of the school. It is important that people recreate even with old ideas – though that could be a much longer discussion. My question is that in today’s situation there could be many kinds of social processes that could be impinging on that work – some of it I would be familiar with, as I work in a fairly similar area – So I would like to know, what are the major kinds of challenges that you face while running the school there?
Sushma Sharma: I would like to begin with the first question. You are right – that Gandhi talked of a different kind of world. Why I would call it Nai Taleem? – I was talking in the context of Gandhi’s ideas. That is why I use the term Nai Taleem. We need not. I would not say the word is essential. What I would really think of is the kind of the educational ideas that we can derive – that we can extract – from Gandhian thinking. And that is something which is important.
Why we started in 2005 was because we need to address this issue of environmental crisis. How do we deal with it? Here somewhere, Gandhi will remind (and help) us (with his ideas) – and many others too, not just him. But because I am working there I have to address him – not because I feel pressured to do so but for due contribution to what he has given us. He has asked us to really think for a moment – where are you going? Is it that this material world only – the material affluence – is needed for being happy? What about the abyss between the rich and the poor? The self-reliance that we speak of and the social heights that we strive to achieve – are these accessible to each and every individual? If yes and if there is a possibility that they will be accessible to future generations too – then yes (he would say) go ahead. But if it isn’t, then we need to pause for a moment and ponder if we are satisfied with the model that we have adopted and the direction in which we are moving so rapidly. However, if we feel that it is enough that it reaches 20-30-40 per cent of people, then we could go with this model.
We should not be weighed down by what Gandhi said. But if we feel that we have consciously adopted the Constitution and that each person has a right – to a life of self-reliance, lawfulness and total respect; and that we are all responsible for it, then we definitely need to give it some thought. I will not say that I want to criticize Nehru. People have tried differently; and probably at this point we need to think whether the path we have chosen – calls for a different set of sensibilities.
The way we are depleting our earth, polluting our air and making water inaccessible to the common person by turning it into a saleable commodity – these situations did not exist nor was society ready to accept these – at the time that Gandhi spoke (of his ideas). The challenges arose partly because we were unable to cope with situations that the modern industrial world handled with (relative) ease.
But I feel that we have now arrived at a juncture where we need to consider that on the one hand, we talk of becoming a superpower and on the other hand, we are unable to provide even the basic necessities – and people are getting more and more marginalized.
So should our education system turn a blind eye to these situations and focus solely on what is written in some textbooks? I feel – and Anita-ji said it beautifully yesterday – that food and hunger could become our issues. But how do we bring them into our textbooks? And how do we handle the ills and inadequacies of the world we live in? Do we need to sensitize children, parents and society to these? I believe that education is a political process. And we cannot ignore this fact.
And secondly, Gandhi-ji has raised the level of ‘political’ to include public policy because we are against nobody in that sense. We are for everybody.
The second question is how do you do your assessments? And how do you define textbooks? We believe that the agricultural fields are our classrooms. Wherever different activities take place, those are our classrooms. So I believe that education can happen wherever there are learning opportunities. But so far as the textbook is concerned, I am talking of it in the conventional sense – the printed form of the textbook.
We do all kinds of assessment – of procedural knowledge, personality factors and conceptual understanding. It is continuous assessment.
The third question – around challenges.Yes, there are many challenges – the first being the issue of learning through the mother-tongue or the regional language. I shouldn’t perhaps say mother-tongue – because that is an elitist term for a standardized language which has many dynamics within it – I would rather say a language that you are close to, whichever language that may be – the state language or some other. Learning through that medium is every child’s birthright so that the process of learning becomes smooth and easy.
I also have a different view of self-reliance. What about self-reliance in children? Why so much of dependence on tuitions? And there are complex situations that come up in the realm of understanding. We have a few children who moved to our school from an English medium school. They are in Class 5 but have no knowledge of either English or Marathi. They come in such a bad state that we need to put them through a crash course that equips them to cope with all that goes on in Class 5, plus adequate language language skills to facilitate their learning process in Marathi. I see that the average children cope beautifully in Marathi within a year or two.
There are several other questions. I am not anti-English. I believe that it is essential for us to learn this language so that we can get by in a wider world. But why enforce it to the point where it restricts expression and affects the simple pleasure of childhood learning? But again, I know that while learning through the mother-tongue is a child’s birthright, external pressures make it essential for him/her to learn English for their political and economic existence. So this language needs to be taught well – something that we aspire to do – and if any of you have the opportunity to conduct any experiments in this area that will be the most important thing for us.
Another challenge is the common belief in society that manual work comes in the way of a child’s academic progress. I talk of a regular society, not one that understands education (well). Some parents believe that the elite class makes its way to powerful positions through an English-medium education and it it through this alone that our children too can become officers or attain positions of power. ‘I know they (my children) are learning well in their mother-tongue’ (they think) ‘but how will they survive without English in today’s complex situation?’ Guardians do have such reservations, and we are striving to address them in the positive, constructive and compassionate manner that they call for.
The third challenge is how to sustain such an educational system which has no government sanction. Parents of children in elite schools do not believe that this sort of activity – getting hands muddied etc – is essential. Perhaps Rishi Valley or some other good schools can afford to do it, because their positions are secure. I am talking about middle-class families in a regular society. If you ask whether children are rushing towards our school the answer is no. But the ones who have come have stayed. Some parents force their children to move to English-medium schools, against their wishes, at the middle-school level. But this is just the beginning. Our school is seeing a natural growth, and it has hardly been eight years since it was set up.
And I see that from the four children we had in the first year and the six in the second, we now have ten children and will have 17 next year. We cannot have more than 25 children per class in any case due to the size of our rooms and the kind of activities we do. And that’s the advisable group for any primary education I feel – for elementary education.
Anita: Just very briefly – not a question, just a comment – it was asked why it is called Nai Taleem to this day. It is very important – it is very heartening to know how in the present-day context, that philosophy (Nai Taleem) is getting redefined within the purview of our curricular and Board requirements. That is very important for us. Even today, why do we teach this to our B.Ed students? Not because it was a historical contingency and what happened is over and done with. What this philosophy states in today’s context, and the relationship between work and education for transformative action, for criticality, for questioning justice and inequity and for transformative action – I think this is what Nai Taleem is for us today. So I think this was really heartening.
The above is an edited transcript of a presentation on Nai Taleem and the Anand Niketan school by Ms. Sushma Sharma in Bangalore in February, 2014.