A Look at Experiments in Accelerating Education
Mrs. Aruna Raghavan
Arasavangkadu Village, Tamil Nadu
September 27, 1999
The thought :
This thought is especially true today, poised as we are at the turn of the millennium. The quick dissemination of ideas thanks to the dramatic improvements in Information technology call for a different brand of education. One that will help children move into a rapidly shrinking world without losing truths that have come to us through the preceding millennia. The process, the methods and the forms of teaching, learning too have to restructure and sometimes change fundamentally, as to appear as a new form altogether.
There is an obvious general agreement that the greatest forces for social progress are human energy and human creative potential. These are the real and ultimate determinants of human development. Yet human potential is like an uncut, unpolished gem or a field of fertile soil which has never been ploughed or cultivated. To bring out that potential and generate prosperity, it needs to be cultivated. That is the role of education.
The spread of democracy in this century is regarded by many as the greatest single step for the liberation of human potential and advancement of the general population. Yet the obvious point, often overlooked, is that the quality of a democracy depends entirely on the quality of those who govern, which in turn depends on the wisdom of the electorate in choosing its leaders. That wisdom in turn depends (though not exclusively) on the level of education of the population.
Economic development also depends to a very large extend on the same basic social foundation - the general level of education and skills of the workforce.
In common parlance, education is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sold and measured in terms of literacy, enrollment levels, number of schools, degrees conferred and marks lists. Education by the numbers may partially serve all these purposes, but when we mistake that for the power of education we overlook the greatest transformative power for the world's development.
But education as a power to cultivate and develop human potential has very little to do with these things. It has everything to do with awakening the minds of children, evoking their enthusiastic interest in the world around them, and releasing their curiosity and creative energies. We need an education that incorporates the facile teaching aids of the electronic media and the warm springs of a human guide.
Having been a teacher for many years, when my own daughter Niru was an infant, I felt a strong urge to offer her the very best possibilities to discover and develop her own innate potential. In the course of studying a wide range of educational methods, my husband and I stumbled upon the work of an American educator, Glenn Doman, who had discovered and demonstrated that the natural born learning potential of children is many times greater than what we commonly believe and that most systems of education actually do more to smother that natural capacity than to develop it.
More than forty years ago in Philadelphia, at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, Dr Glenn Doman was already trying to convince parents that they were the most ready and apt teachers their children would ever get. For two reasons: first, learning begins before birth and second parents do not go home at 5 p.m. He also says that of all people, a parent knows best how her child learns.
In his writings, Doman made an interesting observation - that except in rare exceptions, every child learns to speak his or her native language by a very early age, regardless of nationality, native intelligence, or the income and educational level of their parents, often with little or no formal training. Every child also learns to recognize a wide range of people, living things, objects, activities and ways of functioning. This all children do naturally at a very early age. He went on to observe that children who are deprived of the opportunity to learn things during the first few years of life find it extremely difficult to learn these and other things later on. For example, children in urban slums who are not exposed to a wide range of colors early usually never acquire the ability to visually distinguish many colors. Most have us have struggled trying to master a second or third language in college, yet how many recall having that much trouble with the first one? We don't because we didn't.
Doman concluded that the first six years of life are a time when children learn naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly and joyously - as a form of play - and that the more opportunities the child has for learning during this period, the more rapidly he learns and the greater his capacities for learning. In fact he stresses that the younger the child the greater the capacity to learn. Every child's natural ability to learn far exceeds what we are tapping, because of the deficiency in our teaching methods. Our present educational methods tap and develop only a very small portion (at best 5%) of human capacity. Each child is a potential genius, with unique capacities. The system should be capable of recognizing this and drawing it out. The programmes are propagated to begin with three week babies and go on till the child is five years. By then, the child was well into reading books beyond his level. But it is understood that the figures may vary.
The methods consist of using flash cards extensively and methodically.
Since the stress is on the idea that the younger a child is, the better equipped is he to learn, the method is teaching focused. The child is taught systematically to synchronise two of his sense organs namely his eyes and ears. Even as the words are being flashed the word is called out. The child learns to assimilate skilfully the two pieces of information being given. The baby is taught to see a word, hear it and know it simultaneously. The child is taught a word as a complete unit of sound and its meaning. The pedagogy is to teach something as a whole first: to know the whole requires a little insight or intuition aided by teaching -in keeping with the Indian philosophy of Advaita! What then is being taught are skills that enable a child to do a task effectively. The child is not so much taught a language as much as a skill to acquire and learn as many languages as his environment will permit. And then when the child is capable of logic he is shown its various components of alphabets, syllables and phoneme Similarly, the child is taught numerals before numbers and functions in mathematics. Encyclopaedic knowledge is taught to a child by first teaching bits of information about any topic. The ring of knowledge is slowly enlarged until it encompasses and includes other topics too. The ring grows big enough to move from topics to subject to interdisciplinary ideas. The result is a very broad based learning, a very wide foundation to understanding, assimilating and finally creating new ideas. The speed at which the child learns is very great. Statistics indicate a learning rate of 150 words per month at the average level to an astonishing 300 words per month at the expert. To imagine this in the context of an average adult having a vocabulary of less than 6000 words, appears to be mind boggling. To reiterate, the reasons are : the methodology and the ever widening ring of knowledge. It is as important to emphasise here that all this is done with the barometer registering zero pressure on the child ! In fact there appears to be a need for the teacher to restrain the child from demanding for more.
Some highlights of the method :
Fun in Learning - The principle stressed is, as long as a child wants to know and we cater to that quest we preserve the fun in learning. Teach the child what he asks; stop short of expounding on the subject in question -- it is the teacher's problem to create that environment, kindle that curiosity leading him to the point of prompting from him the next logical question !
A pitfall in the traditional trends of education is the stress on literacy, acquiring of degree, passing of examinations. This has significantly infected the student to concentrate on what helps these stresses. We are thus ignoring that higher value to the learning. This alternative definitely changes the stress -- learn what is desired ; learn it precisely ; learn it swiftly ; expand multi-directionally as per the leading quest .
It can be easily accepted that we are born with a natural thirst for knowledge ; a thirst that is naturally insatiable. As long as we are clear that we are getting what we "WANT" there is no stress, no pressure - we are "learning" and not being "taught" and as long as we are learning we are only satisfying a "Need". We are thus able to obviate the issues of - "Are we pressurising the child to know more ?"; "Does he need all this ? ". It is a fact that as the network of associations of a concept expands, we assimilate faster, the various levels of perception are established and recall is accelerated. Using as many physical senses as is possible assists in putting the subject wholly into the being -- the knowledge was always a part of the being -- learning is only recognising the perspectives.
The wonder of the system is that it makes the child a compulsive reader. The child needs you only when calling on the known associations completely fails. The teacher's role as the source of knowing is soon made redundant and is replaced as that of a friend to turn to, a guide to look up to. The child becomes clear that he has only to go to depths within himself to understand -- the teacher is always there to assist in removing the blocks that hinder this exploration.
The method deals with the honing of the skill of reading - i.e. distinguishing one word from another. (One has only to open a newspaper, in a totally foreign language to know what we mean. The whole paper appears to be a mass of unrecognisable characters.) Once this skill is mastered it is only a routine application in learning any other language. And the beauty is each language is presented in the manner of our learning the native language. Rules of grammar are not memorised, rules of sentence formations are not learnt by rote, spellings are not committed to memory -- one just ingrains this as one goes along in the program.
When Raghavan and I decided to teach our daughter at home eleven years ago, we were questioned in detail. They even had us on the TV. as 'non conformists'. That was the time when female infanticide cases were being reported almost hourly! So, we were asked if our child was not being sent to school because she was only a girl? Our thoughts towards a different education began in the early 80s.
We began our school in 1994 in rural Tamil Nadu. Sociologically speaking, when a child from the rural and backward areas first comes to school, the child has no clear "Vyaktitva" - or individuality - due to the undeveloped feudal social background. There is only a strong will to compete for everything - from the teacher's attention, to food, to toys and games. In most cases, the child in a few weeks of schooling develops a sense of individuality. The first step to any education is that sense of individual worth and dignity. The simplest devices we adopt to foster individuality are hugging every child at the start of the day, by calling out to their special features / nature, admiring their colouring, pinning them up, and sending their work home to be admired. Offering flowers and ensuring that every child does so makes the child feel special. Soon, they develop a sense of freedom; they learn to demand on the basis of individual freedom. A specific task is demanded, a favourite book is sought and demands are made to read the book aloud.
As individuals, they have a sense of freedom but there is still no sense of social responsibility. This is the second step in education - to make the individual grow into a person, in whom freedom is enriched by psychic maturity through the influx of the sense of social responsibility. When this second step in spiritual growth sets in, a nation will have in its educated section millions and millions of free and responsible citizens. It requires co-operation and team effort. Man as individual does not possess it; only man as a person does.
Fostering this in individuals draws on all of a teacher's resources and creativity. In our school we take on children who are as bright as buttons, children who have severe learning disabilities and mildly brain-injured children. The thought is that learning is itself a therapy; denial of a learning environment leads to behavioural and emotional disturbances. Children are the world's only pace setters, the world's only learners. They mostly teach themselves by observation and continual effort at arriving at perfection. It is the only reason that we have all learned to walk, but few of us have refined driving to an art and still fewer have taken to flying. Had we been expected to fly as children we doubtless would have learned that too. So, we wait for the children to begin learning and then teaching takes over.
A child is given all chances to explore, investigate and form their own impressions. Then the teacher steps in and takes their impression to formalising into thoughts and facts. The children may explore as individuals but are expected to share their findings with their friends. They sit as a group when they discuss and help each other with the facts they may have learned or observed. By 6 years our children are divided into small groups of 4 or 5. In each group we have children who do very well at the chosen task of the hour. We may have a couple that are average and a couple that need help all through the way. The group that does well is always the group that has most helped each other. So without much insistence on social responsibilities as a theory we are able to establish a form of thinking and attitude.
It is not to say that our children are angels. By no means. When Anandhi, our mild brain injured child joined us a year and quarter ago, she created quite an uproar. The children found her mannerisms amusing and took every chance to tease her on the sly. Like all children they were caught at it. The teachers converted it into an opportunity to talk in detail about neurological development of the brain, the dysfunctions and why people were different. Today, those who can help, those who can't help directly help by not laughing at her attempts at learning. The upshot is that Anandhi has gained the reputation of not forgetting important things like locking up after class, who has been served who not, which teacher has stationery that she can put to use. We can safely use her memory box when our own fail. She came to us at twelve with no learning, with severe behavioural problems and bouts of violent anger. She is now thirteen, still shows signs of stubbornness but is absolutely tractable if promised a book that she can read. Her pride at being able to read grows by the day and with it the children who watch her are assured that learning is a child's enjoyable mode of growing up. Learning has given her a chance at being a part of the society that might otherwise reject her. Learning has given her a dignity and a confidence in herself.
We recently had our doctor friend from Mumbai visit us. He was floored by our children who listened in silence to a friend of theirs stammer her way through a speech on Indian Independence movement. "They did not even snigger, how is that?" was his question. Our children floored me when they celebrated Krishna's birthday.
We did not have to tell them what was expected of them. From the seventeen year olds to the 3 year olds, the children reacted as one, where the social responsibility of ensuring that everyone got a share was of prime importance.
Reviewing that day, our only thought was : maybe our children may not shake the earth with a Newtonian theory but they will be among the silent unsung heroes who take their society along. They are on their way to fully being persons and move on to the next stage of evolution.
Maybe they too share the thought that "learning is the greatest gift one can give to a child; to learn always and everywhere."
Though encouraged by the results in that remote, back-ward village, it was felt that this may be a one only experiment and not an educational alternative ; there was a need to prove this at the other end of the rainbow? A model established only in the backward rural area may not be sufficient for the needs of a much more progressive urban population. There was a need to prove the efficacy of the system at the top of the social ladder, and look for it to percolate. Therefore, another school was conceived by The Mother's Service Society at Pondicherry - named Primrose School. It is now 6 months old.
Here was a population much more ready to receive, eager to evaluate , quick to criticise. Here was an opportunity to provide an engine which could propel much faster towards a wider acceptance ; one more proof of the fact if an idea could be acclaimed by the socially higher strata and standards acceptable to them set, the process of following the leaders would be in motion ; what is perceived as success by those already measured by society as successful , would be more easily influence general acceptance. The motives driving this process may not be the ones conceived by the pioneers but the same objectives may be achieved. The common acceptance in its first principles by the social fabric would take its time - but the direction would be already indicated.
Sample list of teaching methods:
1. The most important aspect of the approach is attitude of the teacher, which should be that learning is a form of play which fosters the blossoming of the child's natural development. Learning should and can be made interesting, enjoyable, fun.
2. A large portion of the teaching materials are produced at the school by the teachers, who customize their teaching aids to suit the interests and knowledge levels of the students.
3. First attention is given to the health and nutrition of the children to ensure that they have the physical energy and natural attention span needed for learning. Nutritional and medical supplements are provided to under nourished children from low income families. Free exercise and play are encouraged to build strength and stamina.
4. Children learn spontaneously when their interest and curiosity are awakened. 'Teaching' is confined to brief periods according to the natural attention span of each child, which is normally 15-30 minutes daily during the first two years. It is never extended beyond the child's span of interest.
5. The student-teacher ratio is kept very low to enable the teacher to work with small groups of 4-5 children at a time while the others are absorbed in learning games or recreational play.
6. The act of teaching consists primarily of presenting sensory images, objects and information to the child in a pleasant and interesting manner and permitting the child to observe and inquire about the subject, without compelling the child to memorize. Coloured flash cards with large images are utilized as convenient, low cost teaching aids.
7. Rapid acquisition of basic reading and verbal skills in multiple languages occurs naturally by exposing the child to whole words as objects repetitively for very brief periods. In this manner at a young age even children of illiterate parents learn several languages as effortlessly as they normally learn to speak their native tongue.
8. Story telling is used to make learning fun and to communicate basic values of goodness, beauty, harmony, responsibility and right conduct.
9. Information on people and other living things, places, history, geography, and other cultures are presented to the child in the form of stories, pictorial information and explanations combined together to present facts in a living, integrated context rather than as a series of separate divorced subjects.
10. Rapid acquisition of basic math skills is achieved through the use of number line method which enables the child to physically experiment and act out different combinations of addition and subtraction.
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