The Isa Upanishad illuminates an aspect of modernity

This post is offered with a head-bowed pranaam in the manner of the Isa Upanishad when it says…
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे
(This we have heard from the wise who have expounded it to us)

I don’t remember when I first started reading the Upanishads. I think it was probably just after I came out of college and started working. I remember being deeply moved by the lyrical quality of the unfamiliar language, that seemed just a little bit beyond the reach of understanding. And I remember the assurance with which the Upanishads spoke and the aura of wisdom they exuded.

I was reading the Isa Upanishad again and was struck by something that reminded me of what Pawanji talks about in our courses on Education and modernity. I thought I would present it here and see what you think…

The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas covers a vast territory. However, in its highly compressed message it still repeats twice, with only minor changes, a set of three shlokas. So, the Upanishad moves away from its terse tone and, through repetition, underlines the message given in 3 of its shlokas. With that as a preface, take a look at the shlokas and the English translation (not word-to-word) done by Eknath Easwaran.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्याम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उविद्यायां रताः ॥ ९ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुर् विद्ययान् यद् आहुर् अविद्यया ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १० ॥

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ ११ ॥

In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So have we heard from the wise.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ सम्भूत्यां रताः ॥ १२ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुः संभवाद् अन्यद् आहुर् असंभवात् ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १३ ॥

संभूतिं च विनाशं च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा संभूत्यामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ १४ ॥

In dark night live those for whom the Lord
Is transcendent only; in night darker still,
For whom he is immanent only.
But those for whom he is transcendent
And immanent cross the sea of death
With the immanent and enter into
Immortality with the transcendent.
So have we heard from the wise.

The word pairs used in the two sets of shlokas are avidya/ vidya and asambhuti/ sambhuti (using ‘vinasa‘ instead of ‘asambhuti‘ in the 14th shloka). Both sets refer to gross/ subtle or outer/ inner worlds. And the message of the Upanishad is that, since these are two sides of the same reality, focusing on only one side leads to a dark, incomplete life. It tells us to engage with the world of action/ immanence where change and death exist and also to engage with the world of meditation/ transcendence which is the unchanging and immortal world.

And how this ties up with our course is that Pawanji keeps saying that modernity over-emphasizes the outer world of change and action and ignores or negates the inner world of unchanging Truth. In our workshops and courses we point out that a modern life focused on the outer is rudderless and leaves us vulnerable to external manipulation (by modern institutions like the market, state etc.). Whereas, taking decisions grounded in the inner leads to a spontaneous, sahaj outer life. The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas gives us a description of the territory and gives us indications on how we can navigate through this territory to live a full life.

What do you think?

Infinite energy

(The following was written as an entry to a story writing competition. It doesn’t deal with education but is a satirical look at modernity and so is 50% on topic for this blog. I hope that it breaks through the grimness of our virus-related predicament and succeeds in making you smile)

Dr Ramdas Verma, a scientist with a Phd from MIT and 25 patents in high-tech electronics, has solved man’s age-old problem- how to get infinite energy off a finite planet. It is now amply clear, even to Nobel-prize-winning economists from the ‘developed’ nations, that the era of cheap fossil fuels is over. It is in this newly opened space for innovation that Dr Verma had his world-changing epiphany. Before we get to that, a paragraph about what a world famous scientist is doing rotting in Bangalore, when he could have been getting in and out of long black cars with beautiful women on his arm. (For example, Dr Verma is younger, better looking and has more hair than Salman Rushdie)

Alongside his awards-filled modern science education in some of the best schools in India, Dr Verma also found the time to get a classical Vedic education before leaving for America on an MIT scholarship. Over the next thirty years, Dr Verma worked very hard and managed to attract great wealth to himself. At the age of fifty, after many ex-wives and their various children had siphoned off all the money they deserved, Dr Verma found himself rich beyond his wildest imaginings. This was when the Vedic component of his education boomeranged on him and he decided to give all his wealth away, stay in a mud hut, wear a dhoti and live a truly Gandhian life. (This conversation when first initiated in San Fransisco quickly led to Dr Verma’s latest divorce). As a halfway measure, Dr Verma moved into a modest ten room mansion in its own four acre parkland on the outskirts of Bangalore and used only a fuel efficient SUV for driving twenty kilometers into town for buying hand-sanitizer and potatoes and other such necessities.

Back to Dr Verma’s epiphany. Dr Verma all alone in crowded India met a social activist who told him somewhat rudely that:
a. If he wanted to give all his money away, why didn’t he just start (ideally with me said the rude social activist) instead of talking about it.
b. About helping poor Indians- has Dr Verma seen or smelt his target audience and why doesn’t he, for example, travel in a Mumbai local train during peak hour to gain this valuable and unforgettable experience.

After spending three sleepless nights over it, Dr Verma flew down (economy class on a cheap airline) to Mumbai and decided to brave it. At the railway station, automatically pushed into an overcrowded local train by the press of the crowd behind him, Dr Verma stood squashed by his target audience on all sides. A distinctly spiritual experience then slowly overtook him. He saw some flashing bright lights and had an experience of Savikalpa Samadhi (he was able to immediately identify it because of his classical education). In this heightened state of consciousness, Dr Verma noted that a young man, seen through smelly armpits and gaps in dirty beards, was shaking his right leg rhythmically. The young man was sitting opposite another young man who too was involuntarily shaking his leg. And, in his moment of insight Dr Verma saw a cross section of the entire train with thousands of nervously but rhythmically shaking men and women legs. Eureka, Dr Verma shouted and thinking that this was the name of their station many people got off and Dr Verma was un-squashed.

Dr Verma was secretive about the details of his solution. He hinted that there is an international conspiracy to steal his invention. However, he explained that the broad details involve the quantum mechanical piezoelectric effect, pre-stressed mechanical springs, lithium-ion wearable batteries, wireless micro-electric magneto-hydraulic transmissions, prana that fills the known and unknown universes and most importantly, of course, distracted men and women (which Dr Verma, Buddha-like, claims is 100% of all men and women). In other non-technical words, Dr Verma has created a revolutionary new way of harnessing the nervous energy floating free in the universe, and yes, it can be stored and can do many times more work than what our current infrastructure for Industrial Civilization needs. Being fabulously rich, as we mentioned earlier, Dr Verma could have easily funded the research and development and taking-to-market of this revolutionary new technology, but big banks from America are lining up with blank cheques outside his door. Friends, when the world is gratefully flooded with this technology, remember that you heard about it here first. This is the future of energy! The future of technology! Dare we say, the future of mankind itself! And, you know, it may soon be sidling up quietly and nestling itself next to your skin.

Two poems

This week I thought of sharing two poems that I like very much. They have their setting in very different world-views, widely separated in geography and time. One written by a modern English poet and the other from the Tamil Sangam era (>2000 years ago). I think both the poems point to some aspects of education, modernity and tradition that this blog covers. Take a look and see what resonances it sets up in you…

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

– Robert Graves

Every Town a Home Town

Every town our home town,
Every man a kinsman.

Good and evil do not come
from others.
Pain and relief of pain
come of themselves.
Dying is nothing new.
We do not rejoice
that life is sweet
nor in anger
call it bitter.
Our lives, however dear,
follow their own course,

rafts drifting
in the rapids of a great river
sounding and dashing over the rocks
after a downpour
from skies slashed by lightnings –

we know this
from the vision
of men who see.

So,
we are not amazed by the great,
and we do not scorn the little.

– Kaniyan Punkunran
(Translated by A.K. Ramanujan in ‘Poems of love and war’)

A slightly disturbing idea about education

I have a slightly disturbing idea about education that I want to present to you in a slow, roundabout manner that resonates with the leaves dancing and shining outside my window against the backdrop of a bright blue Bangalore sky…

Two days ago, I was on a call with some close friends and the question came up whether I was against vaccinations and why I had not got my first dose yet. I told them an old story to make my case.

Long ago, I was friendly with a nice couple who had a 3-year-old son. Whenever you asked the boy a yes/no question (for example- Do you want an ice cream?), his instant response would always be a ‘No’. Then he would think about it a little bit and sometimes he would change his mind (As in- Yes, I want an ice cream). The world is always pushing us, telling us that we ought to do something or the other because it is good for us and I remember thinking that the young boy had figured something out that would serve him well as he grew up.

Like the little boy, I find it convenient to say ‘No’ first and take some time to think about whatever is being pushed at me. It has been my experience that when something is being pushed at me, it MAY be good for me but it is DEFINITELY (economically or emotionally or in some other way) good for the person pushing it. I told my friends on the call that I was not against vaccinations but against being pushed. 🙂

Which brings me to the disturbing idea about education that I wanted to present- As parents and teachers, or educators, are we not all the time pushing things at children? Some introspection can reveal to us that teaching and learning are two separate processes and as a teacher we can only have control over one part of the process. It is not only the push of the teacher that makes learning happen inside the learner but the readiness or paatrata of the learner.

Let me extend that and try to express it in another way. You will probably agree that what we are trying in education is the creation of a good human being with some skills useful to society. But, how do we go about creating a ‘good’ human being? Even assuming that we ourselves are good and that we have some robust industrial process for transmitting our goodness, what the previous paragraph is indicating is that there is no guarantee that the learner will become good.

Therefore, does it not mean that as educators we must realize that the project of education we have embarked on is doomed? That, we are only throwing seeds that may or may not sprout? That, the learners who are ready will find their own ways and will anyway learn, with or without our teaching effort? And, should this realization not make us educators take ourselves a little less seriously?

Long ago, I bumped into a hostel-mate at an airport. We were both rushing and in passing I asked him, ‘You look like you have made it big, what are you doing nowadays?’ He responded with a smile, ‘Still doing what I used to do in the hostel – logo ko bewakuf banane waala kaam kar raha hoon.’ I think that when we educators become sahaj enough to say this about our work, we would have moved closer to Asli Shiksha. 🙂

What do you think?

Drawing the attention or dhyaanakarshan vidhi

Last week I shared an extract from our soon-to-be-launched online course on understanding modern education. Today I thought of sharing some more information on how it works. The course is meant for parents, teachers and other interested adults. It will take some 6-9 hours to go through (depending on whether you follow or don’t follow the links for extra study) and is divided into 9 chapters:

  1. The problem with modern education
  2. Historical background
  3. Introduction to Asli Shiksha
  4. Drawing the attention or dhyaanakarshan vidhi
  5. Principles of Asli Shiksha
  6. Modernity and tradition
  7. What modernity does to us
  8. Sthiti and Gati
  9. Stepping-out

Each chapter has 6 segments:

  1. Introspect (Self-reflective questions to set the context)
  2. Listen (3-5 minute audio-visual presentation)
  3. Contemplate on ‘Listen’ (Writing down takeaways)
  4. Read (Reading material to deepen understanding)
  5. Contemplate on ‘Read’ (Writing down takeaways)
  6. Know (Some points to read and ponder)

Here is a sample, work-in-progress audio-visual to give you a glimpse of what the course looks and feels like…

I hope you liked the presentation. Namaste!

The problem with modern education

This week’s blog post is extracted from an online course that we will be launching soon. The course is designed to make a participant contemplate on his/ her educational experience and connect the dots to better understand modern Indian education. The course is made up of short audio-visual presentations, reading material and self-reflective writing exercises. A relevant screen-grab from the audio-visual part of the course is shown below.

And, here is an extract from the online course…

Pawan Gupta, the co-founder of SIDH, has a favourite story about the fundamental problem with our education system. When they moved to Mussoorie, some village women seeing that Pawanji and his wife Anuradhaji seemed to have a lot of free time and seemed to be educated, asked them to start a village school. When some time had passed and the village women got comfortable with him, they told Pawanji that this system of education was destroying their children. “What is your education system doing to our children?” they asked. They felt the education seemed to be alienating the children from their families, villages, culture and their ways of doing things. The children started developing a sense of shame towards whatever was their own. An old woman seeing the effect of education on young boys, who now preferred to move around with their hands in their pockets, told Pawanji that he should teach children to ‘Be’ rather than focus only on the appearance. “Hona sikhao,” she said, “dikhna dikhaana nahin.” Pawanji considers this his mantra in education and he says that this was the turning point where he became aware of his hidden assumptions and his real education started. Pawanji says that another lady had asked him about the objective of the modern education system. “Was it,” she asked, “designed to take the village boys to Delhi and the Delhi boys to America?”

Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great philosopher and scholar, criticizing the British education system in an essay written in 1909, titled ‘Education in India’, gives us indications about this problem when he says:

“The system of education set up by the British creates anti-national tendencies by ignoring or despising almost every ideal of the Indian national culture. Most students lose all capacity for the appreciation of Indian culture and become strangers in their own land. The education is really based on the general assumption- nearly universal in England- that India is a savage country, which it is England’s divine mission to civilize.”

The problem started much earlier. This can be seen in what William Bentinck the governer general of India wrote in a letter to the secretary of state in 1827. This was 3 years after the rebellion by the Indian soldiers at the Barrackpore cantonment rattled the British empire. In the letter he said:

“There is nothing to worry now as the educated Indian has started leaving his ways and stopped giving alms to mendicants and sadhus and, with the money thus saved, is busy entertaining the British and imitating their ways.”

Mahatma Gandhi has spoken eloquently about the alienation that this type of education brings to us. In an article titled ‘The present system of education’, written in 1916, he says:

“An impartial English writer has said that as long as there is no continuity between schools and homes in India, the pupils will not have the benefit of either. Our youths learn one thing from parents at home and from the general environment, and another at school. The pattern at school is often found incompatible with that in the home. The lessons in our textbooks are regarded as of little relevance to conduct. We cannot put the knowledge so acquired to any practical use in our daily life. The parents are indifferent to what is taught at school. The labour spent on studies is considered useless drudgery which has to be gone through that one might take the final examination, and once this is over we manage to forget as quickly as possible what we had studied. The charge levelled against us by some Englishmen that we are mere imitators is not entirely baseless.”

The problems in modern Indian education, which began 200 years ago under the British rule, have not been addressed till date, as fundamentally nothing much has changed from those times. And the problems seem to afflict all types of people whatever be their linguistic, social or economic background. So, the first generation learners begin to look down upon their illiterate parents and their local culture. And the children of affluent educated parents despise the very idea of India without knowing anything very much about it.

We go through an elaborate, time-and-life-consuming, expensive process of national education that finally results in us becoming mindless imitators, self-conscious about who we are, losing our real confidence and becoming asahaj. Do you not think that it is time that we did something about it?

Schools: Anand Niketan

This is the fifth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I don’t think Gandhiji will be pleased to see what they have done to his ashram at Sevagram. Everything is manicured and tourist-ready and there is a souvenir shop. To top it all, there are small boards put up everywhere saying things like, ‘Gandhiji took his sunbath on this lawn’. The atma has left the place and only the immaculately preserved mummy exists. However, Gandhiji will be very happy to see Anand Niketan in the adjoining compound. This school, originally started in 1940 by Gandhiji to experiment with Nai Taleem and shut down in 1975, was revived in 2005 and is now doing very well.

Sushama Sharma, the head of Anand Niketan, was in the middle of working with some children when I reached the school. She told me that she could stop what she was doing because her time was flexible or that I could wait for half an hour. It was almost lunch time so I went, had lunch, and came back to find her free. Sushama is a soft-spoken, polite, gentle, and wise woman. During our walk around the school, many teachers and children spoke with her. Her tone with everyone, whether adult or child, was courteous and her interactions had the completeness of wisdom. It seemed as if Sushama was a part of everything happening in the school. As we were passing by a class, we heard some children talking loudly and laughing and stopped to ask what was going on. The children explained that some of their friends had not kept their footwear in the designated place outside the classroom and so they were teaching them a lesson – when these friends were away, the children in the classroom hid their chappals under some bushes in the garden. The children told Sushama all this as if she were part of their gang and would see the justness of their actions. I noticed that Sushama enjoyed the exchange but gave no adult value judgment like – ‘OK, after they learn their lesson please return their chappals’; or ‘That is a good thing that you have done.’ Wisdom and compassion probably go together in people.

The school campus is spread out and the buildings are the same ones that Gandhiji walked through. I don’t know exactly what it is – the location next to the ashram, or the spread out buildings, or the large trees everywhere – but there is something utterly charming about this school. It felt like the farm, and the trees, and the buildings with their tiled roofs and the small and big people moving through it all fit into each other perfectly. There was a completeness to the picture; perhaps it was in the simplicity of the buildings and the people, or their connection with the local. (This is not an elite English medium school, the teachers and students speak Marathi all the time.)

Some things that stick out from my visit:

– The Montessori-like preschool with its two large rooms with the work of the children visible everywhere. The children finishing their meals before leaving for home. Their teachers, quiet and efficient and mother-like.
– The crafts room where among other things the children weave the floor mats they use in school and also sell to make money for the school.
– The farm area where every child helps in the growing of the food for the school.
– The large Maulsari tree in full bloom with its small delicately scented flowers.
– The museum where the history of the school is chronicled in old black and white photographs.

Let me wind up this impression with an excerpt from a story of how the old school used to be.

“Awaking early in the morning, the entire school community, consisting of its students and teachers, would undertake an hour’s safai (cleanliness) of the entire premises, including classrooms, dormitories, buildings, grounds, latrines. Time for bathing, washing clothes, and attending to personal cleanliness followed. The community then assembled for prayers, after which there was breakfast. Three hours of Sharir Shram (manual labour) formed an integral and perhaps the most important part of the curriculum. Here too, students and teachers worked together whether in the fields, or the spinning shed, or later, when the subject was introduced, in the mechanical engineering shed.

Study periods would be in the afternoons, after lunch and rest. No textbooks were followed, but all that was taught was related to the work done in the morning, not just math or economics, but science, social studies, language, literature also would be based on the work done. A session of games, in which students and teachers participated, helped to build an atmosphere of harmony and co-operation. At about 6.30 p.m., the entire ashram would meet for prayers. When Gandhiji was there he would always attend and on occasions, he would give a talk after prayers.”

Quick facts:

Name of school: Anand Niketan, Sevagram, Wardha
Been around since: Restarted in 2005 at the original Nai Taleem campus that Mahatma Gandhi set up at his ashram in Sevagram in 1937. (The original school had shut down 40 or so years ago.)
Number of teachers/staff: 20 including balwadi teachers
Number of children: 110 including balwadi children
Classes handled: Pre-primary to class 9
USP: Continuation of Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai Taleem school
Location: Sevagram, Wardha
Website: https://anandniketansevagram.wordpress.com/

Schools: Manzil

This is the fourth post in a series on alternative learning spaces. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here.

I met Ravi Gulati, the founder of Manzil, at a learning conference in Delhi where he was one of the speakers. The gentleness and wisdom that shone through his words made me search him out and talk to him. This is his inspiring story!

Ravi grew up in Khan Market, a posh colony of South Delhi, where some of the richest and most powerful people of Delhi stay. Like any upmarket place, Khan Market also has a few people living in big houses and many, many more, providing essential cleaning, gardening, cooking and driving services, living in small servant’s quarters and one-room tenements that are carefully hidden from the manicured views of the rich. Ravi says that he played with all the children in the neighbourhood as he was growing up but the rich kids very early got a sense of which friends could be taken home. A defining influence in Ravi’s life has been a sister with special needs. As she finished her schooling and Ravi’s mother taught in her school for 20 years, Ravi got his MBA from IIM Ahmedabad. Reluctant to plunge into the rat race that he had a golden ticket for, Ravi was trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life when the family was sucked into a year-long battle with cancer that his father lost his life to. Ravi decided to slowly sort out all the pending duties and move to a remote village in Uttaranchal and begin organic farming.

He was relatively free and two boys, in 8th and 7th class, from the poorer side of Khan Market, came to him to learn math and he agreed to teach them. It was soon clear that although the boys were very smart, they had fundamental problems and Ravi started working with them. Soon there were 20 children of various ages and abilities coming to Ravi to learn math and this is how Manzil began its serendipitous journey into outside-school, non-formal education. Ravi’s plan to escape into the Himalayas gets renewed periodically, but Manzil, that is today more about learning and less about which side of the economic divide the student is from, has been around for 17 years and conducts classes in spoken English, math, computers, music, painting and theatre. They also have a pre-school that is open to children with developmental needs and adult education classes for their mothers. Manzil has grown organically driven by the needs of the students coming and seeking help and by students becoming teachers even as they learn something else.

Manzil used to run from Ravi’s house but as more children enrolled, they have expanded and operate out of two small tenement houses that one of the student-turned-teacher, Anil, who has been with Manzil for over 10 years, showed me proudly around. There was a very informal atmosphere and a computer class was going on and it was difficult to tell who the facilitator was and who the students. I had asked Ravi how Manzil was funded and he gave me an answer that I will not forget in a hurry. He said that his family has passed him down two precious inheritances, one some money-in-the-bank and the other an innate miserliness that makes the money go a really long way.

Let me finish by using Ravi’s words from their website:
“…Manzil’s journey has been one of constantly discovering the deeper continuities and inter-connectedness of all life. It is this thought that infuses our work and vision, and illuminates our understanding of education and empowerment, as that which builds connections between the self and the social, the personal and the political, the intellectual and the emotional, the rational and the felt, the common and the distinctive, the ordinary and the sublime. We are all learners here. And like life itself, any Manzil is only a sojourn.”

Quick facts:

Been around since: 1996
Number of teachers/staff: 23 teachers; 11 core members
Number of children: 230 students
Classes handled: Non-formal supplementary classes in English, math, computers, science; In the arts: theatre, music, kathak, modern dance, photography, film making, art and crafts.
USP: A learner driven space for non-formal education, Manzil is a learning community and an after school alternative learning centre. They work with people with high responsibility of learning, people who want to learn regardless of age, gender, region, religion, intelligence, caste or class.
Location: Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi
Website: http://www.manzil.in

Schools: Indus World School

This is the third post in the series on alternative schools. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here. (Note: The article was originally written in 2017 and many things have changed at the school and its parent company, but the radical experiment that the article chronicles is worth implementing in other schools)

Shivku, R. Shiva Kumar, Alumnus IIT Chennai and IIM Kolkata, board member of CL Educate limited, a large education services company, is the head of the Indus World School in Indore. I have worked directly under him for an year and our families lived in adjoining flats for some time and we know each other very well. From its head office in Noida, CL runs 12 Indus World Schools spread across the country and Shivku should have been sitting there and thinking of the larger picture. He chose to distance himself from the head office and commit three years in actually running one of the schools. Of the many initiatives he tried in Indore, one is so different from our normal idea of schooling that I am using this space to chronicle it.

Just a paragraph about the organization and the people behind it before we get to that. 17 years old, 225 centers in 175 locations across India, 3000 employees and partners reaching out to 50,000 students with its test preparation classes – CL was started by a group of friends who studied together at IIM Bangalore. There is a story that highlights the college-like feel that the company still retains. Satya, the Chairman, was living in the company guest house as his family was away and a new recruit arrived from out-of-town late one night. He organized dinner for her and they shared an auto coming and going back to the guest house over the next couple of days before she saw in an induction video that the person she knew as Satya was the boss-man. When well-intentioned, smart people like Satya, and there are a bunch of them at CL, decide to start a chain of schools, they do a good job.

Now back to Shivku’s initiative at Indore. He told his 9th standard math students that he would conduct a 10 day introductory seminar during the summer holidays on concepts in 10th standard math and children who are interested could come in. He also said that it was not very important as he would be covering the same ground over the next academic year. As he had guessed, the 8-10 children in his class who were interested in math came for his seminar. He started the day with an hour-long story-like overview of the first chapter and asked the children to read through the chapter and solve all the problems given at the end and come back the next day. He encouraged them to talk to each other and use all the online resources and books they had access to in school and at home. He started the next day discussing any issues the children faced and gave the story-overview of chapter 2. And so on! The 10th standard syllabus was covered by the time the seminar finished! When the school reopened Shivku had 10 teaching assistants who already knew the subject. He got them to sit with groups of their classmates and let the children work through the syllabus slowly. Shivku’s job then really became what we like to think of in progressive circles as that of a ‘facilitator’. Being available only when the children needed him.

Of course, this is not the only way that Indus World School ensures good education for its children. There are structural elements like the age-appropriate pedagogical methods or the focus on the social and emotional growth of the children through ‘circle time’ etc. Shivku’s initiative can be categorized as the idiosyncratic, non-structural element that only an inspired teacher can provide. And that is why we need more Shivkus and Satyas to come and join the conversation on school education.

Quick facts:

Name of school: Indus World School (IWS), Indore
Been around since: 2007
Number of teachers/ staff: 60 teachers across two campuses
Number of children: 1000
Classes handled: Nursery to class 12
USP: Self-paced child-friendly learning environment
Location: 2 campuses in Indore. IWS has 12 schools across the country.
Website: http://www.indusworldschool.com

Schools: Aksharnandan

This is the second post in the series on alternative schools. The original article appeared in the Teacher Plus magazine and is available here. Hope you like it…

“I would have our young men and young women learn as much of English and other world languages as they like, and then expect them to give the benefits of their learning to India and the outside world… But I would not have a single Indian forget, neglect or be ashamed of his mother tongue, or to feel that he or she cannot think or express the best thoughts in his or her own vernacular.”
Mahatma Gandhi

When I explained that I was going around the country collecting alternative school stories, Vidya Patwardhan wrote back: “Well, Aksharnandan is a mainstream school, exploring innovative spaces within. So cannot really be called ‘Alternative’.”

As she graciously showed me around Aksharnandan, Vidya told me how it all began. Vidya, who has an MA and an MPhil in Anthropology, was working on teacher training at the NG Naralkar foundation and she felt that this was having limited impact on the triangle of teaching/ learning/ evaluation. This insight was the seed for a group of like-minded persons from varied walks of life coming together to form Aksharnandan. In addition to integrating information, knowledge, values and skills, Aksharnandan anchored itself firmly on the following pillars

a. Using vernacular (Marathi) as the medium of learning (Aksharnandan’s website echoes Gandhiji as it states: “A truly universal mind can grow, only when it strikes strong roots in its indigenous soil.”)
b. Focusing on a cooperative, non-competitive environment
c. Building sensitivity to ecology and environment
d. Following democratic values
e. Integrating Head, Hand and Heart (3Hs)
f. Making the school inclusive

As we walked through the non-box-like architecture of the school’s new building, what was very noticeable was the children’s art and writing work displayed over all the walls. On one wall I remember a large painted tree with hidden animals in it, and I noticed that a snail shell stuck on the wall looked very real. We peeped into some classrooms and I saw relaxed looking children in small groups sitting around and quietly working on furniture-less floors. In the rooms where the teacher was talking, the children faced her but even here it didn’t look like a ‘class’ was being conducted. I also got a glimpse of a child sleeping with his knees up on a low bench in the corner of one of the classrooms.

Two stories Vidya told me highlight the teaching/ learning methodology they follow at Aksharnandan. 6th standard children working in groups follow bank procedures to get loans of 500 to 700 Rupees that the school facilitates. The children use the money to buy raw materials to create artifacts that they then sell. The other story is that many activities that integrate head, heart and hands, cooking Vidya thinks is an especially good example, is done by all the children in all the classes.

My visit to Aksharnandan renewed my faith in how much difference a small group of determined, compassionate individuals could make. In my thank you mail to Vidya I wrote:

“Thank you for the time you took out of your busy schedule to meet me. It was wonderful getting to spend time in the circle of your wisdom and warmth. I came away really inspired by what you have done at Aksharnandan. You said that you are ‘mainstream’, well I think that many ‘alternative’ schools can learn some basics about real education from Aksharnandan.”

I thought Vidya’s response proved my point:

“Arun, I also enjoyed talking to you. ‘circle of wisdom and warmth’! Well put Arun but a bit exaggerated. Would love to meet your family, perhaps next time I’m in Kerala.”

I think ‘Wisdom and warmth’ it is, and that is probably what reflects off from everything in the unique ‘mainstream’ experiment called Aksharnandan.

Quick facts:

Name of school: Aksharnandan
Been around since: 1992
Number of teachers/ staff: 20 full time and 25 contributory (part time)
Number of children: 484 (40 students in one class and no class divisions)
Classes handled: KG to 10
USP: Marathi medium school that follows democratic values and propagates a non-competitive, ecologically sensitive worldview interweaving academic studies with productive activities.
Location: Pune
Website: http://www.aksharnandanschool.org