On saturday, 13th October, I went to Riverside School to meet Veena Das & Nikita Desai. Since it was after school hours, I did not see many students in the campus. I had a chance to sit down with the two teachers for about an hour and discuss my project with them. My intention was to study Riverside as a model of education, in the current context, and see if any of the principles that the school embodies can be adapted/scaled up to the national level.
The alternative schooling model, since it does not adhere to the well known CBSE/ICSE boards, is not very popular among Indian parents. It is generally found that the students come from a higher bracket of the society. This model of education does not believe in the rote learning methods. Rather, they rely on experience based learning, with practicals and field visits to equip the student with the necessary skills required to grow in the 21st century. Personal character growth is given more emphasis than pure academics.
The teachers are highly motivated & passionate about what they do. Here is what makes the most difference. Since the management is keen on making sure that the teachers are happy and given freedom with the students in the classes, the teachers are motivated to put their best into each session. Preparation before every session becomes essential.
Teachers maintain a daily log of every student where they note down any particular observations. A monthly progress report is communicated to the parents, which keeps them in the loop and makes them participate in their child’s learning. There is also a process of self assessment and peer assessment where in the students themselves are involved in their own evaluation.
These students are exposed to many career options, and know that there is nothing limiting them. They have the necessary support, and this model gives them the confidence to take up whatever they want. This might not be the case with most middle class families pressurizing children to choose one of a few secure career options. Competitive examinations might prove difficult for the student to handle. The school does not take any responsibility for that. Those examinations follow a separate pattern, and hence separate method of learning is required.
The challenge is to scale this model up to a level where it penetrates through strata and becomes a viable option for more number of children.
Howard Gardner, in his recent talk titled “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed”, frames two questions, What should we teach and what should students learn? Should this be different in the 21st century and, if so, how? To move beyond greed and fear, and, that, he says, should be the backbone of all educational ventures.
So how does one move beyond greed and fear? It got me thinking. What in schools brings greed and fear? Students are greedy for marks, and afraid of examinations and failing. This is directly related to the notion of competition. If competition is replaced by collaborative learning, one would automatically move beyond greed and fear.
In this age, information assimilation is not a problem at all. So why is it that we have examinations in which students are expected to memorize and reproduce? Can we not have open book examinations in schools? Examinations that are designed to test the capability of a student to apply what he/she has learned rather than what he/she has learned. They could also be collaborative in nature, in the form of group projects and activities that encourage sharing, inspiring and motivating among students.
Reading through the Montessori system of education brought some understanding as to what we’re really looking for in the 21st century. Also, why our current education system is as it is.
Quoting directly from their website,
The traditional educational system was designed during the industrial revolution, when the masses moved into urban areas to work in factories.
They created an effective method of training the following generations of factory workers. Children were instructed to memorize and regurgitate facts – to stop working when the bell rings – to sit in nice, neat rows of desks and ask for permission to move. It is no longer relevant in our modern culture.
Today, successful people work on projects not factory lines. They are rewarded for creating things rather than following orders. And, they are expected to adapt quickly to change within their profession, rather than working at the same job for 50 years.
Our world doesn’t need more test takers, memorizers or followers.
Now, more than ever, we need critical thinkers, entrepreneurs and do-ers.
It seems to me that it is quite clear as to what we need children to be in this time. The question for India, is how to develop systems that create such kind of learning environments for children. Efforts are being made in various places, by select individuals or groups, and the government is slowly realizing the need to adapt and rethink.
Now the question is, where do we (designers) come in? This is a question I posed to Rupesh Vyas, Graphic Design coordinator and faculty at NID. He affirmed my belief that the role of a designer, given such a situation, is to understand, organize and spearhead the project. If design thinking is to make meaning, then it is our job to make sense of the chaos and streamline the process.
A recent article in the Times of India talked about the Gujarat Council for Educational Research and Training (GCERT) implementing Jean Piaget’s principles for child development by incorporating changes directed towards making learning more innovative, creative and fun.
The plan is to make learning in primary schools more experience based rather than having children mug up and reproduce information. Application of Logic, and Assimilation of Knowledge would follow Experiences.
Evaluation methods would also need to be changed accordingly since there is to be no discrimination amongst students. They would be allowed to learn at their own pace. Drafts for new textbooks have been worked on and modules for teachers have been prepared to equip them with tools and methods to be innovative and creative with children in the classroom.
This seems to be a positive step forward in terms of school education. The practical implementation of the new system is still in question. It would be interesting to talk to the concerned authorities and get their view points. Transition from the existing system, to the new proposed one would also be a challenge. Changes in mental models are slightly difficult to bring about.
Experience based learning is not a new concept. Alternative education schools thrive on this system. But what has always concerned me is how children from alternative education backgrounds make the switch to the mainstream (or cope up with the highly competitive nature of entrance exams and such like). A conversation with Khyati Trehan, who studied in Sri Aurobindo, brought to light that these children went to school not to meet their friends or hang out with them, but with the desire to become “intelligent” and that they would get to do something interesting everyday.
Alternative education in the country is growing as a concept but is still only accessible to the higher strata of the society. I am going to talk to Kiran Bir Sethi, the founder of Riverside school, in this week. She would hopefully be able to answer some of my queries and give her view points on the current evaluation system, the transition it is going through and the possibilities that lay ahead of us.