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Strategy for Improving Education at the Pre-School and Primary Level

 Challenges of Primary Education in India

Early childhood education in India is subject to two extreme but contrary deficiencies. On the one hand, millions of young children in lower income groups, especially rural and girl children, comprising nearly 40% of first grade entrants never complete primary school. Even among those who do, poorly qualified teachers, very high student-teacher ratios, inadequate teaching materials and out-moded teaching methods result in a low quality of education that often imparts little or no real learning. It is not uncommon for students completing six years of primary schooling in village public schools to lack even rudimentary reading and writing skills.

At the other end of the social and educational spectrum, children attending urban schools, especially middle and upper class children in private schools, are subjected to extreme competitive pressures from a very early age to acquire basic language skills and memorize vast amounts of information in order to qualify for admission into the best schools. Parents and teachers exert intense pressure on young children to acquire academic skills at an age when children should be given freedom and encouraged to learn as a natural outcome of their innate curiosity, playfulness and eagerness to experiment. Rising concern over compulsory learning at an early age is prompting many educators to advocate dramatic steps to counter the obsession with premature and forced teaching practices.

In Search of a ‘Third Way’

Between these two extreme positions, lie a wide array of mostly mediocre practices. Rarely do we find the educational system fostering the natural process of spontaneous, self-motivated self-education in which children learn just as they play and as a form of play out of their innate curiosity and urge to acquire knowledge of the environment. Internationally, there have been many efforts to find a ‘third way’ that suffers neither from the sad neglect all too common in low quality public education or the compulsive pressures exerted even on very young children by competitive, career-conscious school systems.

A highly successful alternative approach has been evolved in the USA by the Institute for the Development of Human Potential, founded by the eminent educationist Dr. Glenn Doman. Doman’s work is founded upon the conviction that learning is a natural instinctive urge in young children that is very often curbed or destroyed either by neglect and lack of exposure or by compulsory teaching. During more than three decades of work with both normal and brain damaged children, Doman has shown that exposing young children to interesting sources of information for very brief periods each day actually stimulates the development of the brain cells during early years and fosters a spontaneous curiosity and natural love of learning in children. Doman’s methods have been practiced for more than 20 years at the Institute’s school in Philadelphia and more recently in similar institutions established in South America, Western Europe and Japan. The same methods have been applied successfully by more than one million parents around the world.

Another alternative approach has been evolved and practiced for the past 45 years at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondicherry. Here too the emphasis has been on fostering a conducive atmosphere for the children’s curiosity to emerge and express itself so that they acquire a natural inclination toward learning and self-development.

Shishayatan School

The Anugriha Charitable Trust was established in 1993 by Mr. and Mrs. R. Raghavan as a public charitable trust with the intention of evolving and demonstrating alternative educational methods in India. The Trust is registered under section 11 & 12 of the Indian Income Tax Act and exempted under section 80G. Mr. Raghavan is a chartered accountant and computer consultant who established and operated a consulting firm in Bombay before leaving the city to establish a rural school in Tamil Nadu. Aruna Raghavan is an M.Phil in English, a former sub-editor of a reputed English magazine and former teacher at the Kodaikanal International School, Gandhi Vidyashram and a high school in Bombay. The Raghavans have spent the last decade exploring and experimenting with new methods of early childhood education. In 1991 they established the Primrose Institute in Bombay where they conducted courses for parents on how to utilize alternative educational methods to foster a love of learning in their own. In 1992 the Raghavans left Bombay and invested their entire savings to establish a primary school at Arasavanangkadu, a village of 1500 people situated ten kilometers from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. The school commenced operations in mid 1994 admitting 15 children aged 3 - 3 to the first class. All of the children were drawn from low income, scheduled caste families in which they are the first generation to receive any education.

Approach and Methods

The system of education provided at the Arasavanangkadu School is based on the following approach:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 exercising and play are encouraged to build strength and stamina.

  • 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.

  • 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. The most effective ratio is five students per teacher during pre-school, LKG and HKG and twenty students per teacher during standards 1 to 5. However, since the teaching methods are intense, each student actually need attend only 2 to 3 hours of class per day, enabling each teacher to effectively handle double the number of students.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Story telling is used to make learning fun and to communicate basic values of goodness, beauty, harmony, responsibility and right conduct.

  • 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.

  • 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.

First Year Results

  • Most of the children come to the school so underdeveloped and under-nourished that almost exclusive emphasis is placed during the first 3-6 months on providing nutritional supplements and free exercise to develop motor skills.

  • As the children gained health and strength, their attention span and curiosity have increase to the point where they happily explore new learning areas for periods from 15 to 30 minutes per day.

  • Despite the very brief time exposure, very average children are able to read simple Tamil and English stories by the end of 15 months.

  • During the same period, they also learn to recognize all the states of India, the geography of the country, the continents, peoples of the world and a wide range of plant and animal species.

  • In addition to teaching the children, the school also engaged two unemployed women from the village with teaching credentials and successfully trained in these methods. The trainees have learned and now regularly apply these methods for teaching our children and they also actively participate in the design of lessons and production of the teaching materials.

  • Although there was initial skepticism and suspicion from the village community, including the families of the first year children, parents have become proud of their children and the village as a whole has come to embrace the school. Requests for admission are coming from villages in a ten mile radius.

These results can be compared with the learning of children from comparable backgrounds attending the local public school, most of whom are unable to read and understand even Tamil sentences at the end of six years of primary education.

Replication of Results

Over the past two decades, similar methods have been tested and proven effective in homes and schools in many different countries and social environments around the world. The effort at Shishayatan demonstrates that these same methods can be successfully applied even in the most challenging context working with disadvantaged children of uneducated, illiterate poor parents, many of whom question the value of any education whatsoever based on the experience of children attending public schools in the area.

The Trust plans to expand the school each year to take in new students at pre-school level and progressively add classes up to and through the eighth standard. This will require a gradual expansion of the teaching staff and addition of new classrooms each year.

The school has demonstrated that it is possible to teach this educational method to suitably qualified young adults from the rural community and that once taught they display very positive attitudes and good teaching skill in working with the children.

Objectives

The aim of this proposal is to outline effective strategies by which the education system practiced at Shishayatan can be tested and extended to all parts of India.

This aim can be achieved provided that following conditions are met:

  1. The pioneering work of the Arasavanangkadu School has to be extended up to the fifth standard over the next five years to demonstrate that even disadvantaged children from rural families can acquire educational levels normally that normally require ten years or more of study, even in urban schools, and that this can be accomplished by encouraging the natural curiosity of the child rather than through the pressure and forced learning patterns common in highly competitive urban schools. This will require expansion of the existing school to accept larger numbers of students and add additional classes, so that total student enrollment at Shishayatan reaches 150-200 students by the end of five years.

  2. A training institute should be established to train teachers and trainers in the methods employed at the school, so that those trained can serve as a nucleus for establishing new schools and as a means of inducting these teaching methods into existing schools the country.

  3. It is essential to build public awareness and acceptance of this approach to early child education, so that existing schools will be willing to experiment with the new methods and so that new schools will be favorable received by the community. This can be achieved through a combination of media educational programmes and demonstration projects carried out in established schools around the country.

  4. Financial resources will need to be raised to support expansion of the Arasavanangkadu School and for establishment of the training institute.

  5. The special teaching and course material employed by these methods must be reproduced on a sufficiently large and economical scale to support widespread dissemination.

  6. Existing schools should be identified that are willing to incorporate these teaching methods as part of their normal educational programme and new pre- and primary schools should be established based entirely on these methods.

Alternative Strategies for Widespread Dissemination

Three alternative strategies for widespread dissemination of the new teaching methods are outlined below:

Option A: Government Training Institute with training in USA

  1. The Government of India should send five experienced instructors from each state for one year training at the Institute for the Development of Human Potential in the USA.

  2. A Government teachers training institute should be established in each state or an existing training institute should be converted to these methods by the trained instructors. Each state institute should be able to train 50 to 100 teachers per year in the new methods.

  3. Each of the trained teachers should be allotted to one government school and provided with a class size and all teaching materials required to utilize the methods effectively.

  4. In five years, 250 to 500 classes can be established in each state through this approach.

  5. The Government would also arrange for the design and production of teaching materials to be utilized at the training institute and in the schools where the trained teachers are employed.

  6. The demonstrated benefits of utilizing the new methods in this extensive demonstration programme should be sufficient to convince the Government to convert more and more schools to the new methods.

Option B: Government Training Institute with Training in India

  1. This option involves the same steps as Option A, except that instead of sending a large number of teachers to the USA for the initial training sessions, the Government seeks to bring one experienced trainer to India from the Institute for the Development of Human Potential to conduct a one year training programme here. Since effective training can only be done in a real school setting, this would require identifying at least one school which would consent to adopting these educational methods for several classes of children.

Option C: Non-Government Training Institute at Arasavanangkadu

  1. This option does not require the full consent and support of Government for establishment of the training institute or adoption of the teaching methods by government schools. Instead, a private training institute is established at Arasavanangkadu in connection with Shishayatan or at a new location in Pondicherry. The institute would train 10 to 20 new instructors per year. The institute should also have the equipment and facilities needed to produce appropriate teaching materials for use during the training programmes and for sale to other schools.

  2. Trainees would be deputed by leading schools such as those operated by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Ramakrishna Mission, and the Kodai International School as well as schools operated by industrial houses and other self-financing primary institutions for a six month training course.

  3. After training, the teachers would be provided by their sponsoring institutions with the class conditions and teaching materials required to effectively utilize the new educational methods.

  4. Trainees could also be recruited from the ranks of qualified teachers with the capacity and motivation to establish their own schools, perhaps with assistance from private corporations or local communities seeking high quality education for their children. After completion of the course these trainees would be assisted to find employment in self-financing private schools or to establish their own satellite schools in small towns and rural communities focusing initially on pre-school, LKG and UKG.

  5. By this approach, approximately 100 teachers could be trained during the first five years and sent out to practice the new methods. During this time, Shishayatan would have been expanded to demonstrate the effectiveness of these methods for students up to the 5th standard. Based on the success of these demonstrations, the new methods could then be propagated rapidly on a larger scale.

Financial Requirements for Option C

In order to implement Option C for expansion of the Shishayatan school and establishment of the training center at Arasavanangkadu, additional financial resources are needed under the following categories:

For the School

  • Construction of an additional two class rooms per year for each of the next three years with furniture.

  • Purchase, production and replacement of books and teaching materials for the new classes.

For the Training Centre

  • Construction and furnishing of a 12 room dormitory for trainees and instructors with a kitchen, dining room, classroom, computer work room and office.

  • Acquisition of a computer and colour printer for design and production of teaching materials.

  • Purchase of materials for production of teaching materials by the new trainees, which they can take with them when they complete the course.

  • Purchase of books for the trainees to take with them when they leave and utilize for teaching.

  • Food and living allowance for trainees, assuming that these expenses are not covered by sponsoring institutions.

The total budgetary requirement for the first three years is estimated at Rs 28 lakhs. (see budget appended)

Sources of Financial Assistance

  • Leading schools can depute trainees to learn the new methods and pay a fee of Rs 25,000 for each person trained, to cover their maintenance costs during the training program, a training stipend, and the cost of teaching materials required for them to bring back when they complete the course.

  • 10 to 15 industrial houses can be approached to contribute funds for the programme. In exchange, several trainees can be deputed to employ the new methods at new or existing schools operated by these companies.

  • Financial assistance may be obtained from Indian and international institutions such as the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

 

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