15, 1994, we began a small school, Shikshayatan, about 10 kilometers from
Tiruvarur, in Tamil Nadu. Our dream was taking shape: to take the best methods
to the poorest sections and prove that did make a difference. For twelve years
before we began the school, Raghavan and I worked at various schools, high
schools, middle schools, primary schools, garnering experience and trying to
formulate a method by which teaching would be an expression of caring for the
taught and learning would be a constant quest of amazing discoveries. However,
it was only after our daughter was born and we began life all over again, that
we were able to articulate.
In the course of reading on education, three sentences by
the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondichery, changed our lives.
“… they [parents] will send him [ the
child] to school and hand over to the teachers the responsibility of his
education….” Therefore, we decided we would teach our own child at home
calling for outside help where our own knowledge and experience was
learn in order to know, to study in order to have the knowledge of the secrets
of Nature and of Life, to educate oneself in order to increase one’s
consciousness, to discipline oneself in order to be master of
our own education fully realizing that we had many qualifications but little
knowledge of what should matter most in life: freedom, harmony,
is an inner reality – within themselves, within the earth, within the universe –
and that they, the earth and the universe exist only as a function of this
sentences were an eye-opener. The first question we asked ourselves was: are we
equipped to teach our own child? The answer was: we are not, but we must equip,
we shall learn. To find what education is, how and why we must educate a child
and ourselves, consumed all our energy.
Shikshayatan grew out of a dream. A
dream that was born when Raghavan joined the NSS, worked in slums in Mumbai, and
set a track of teaching math and science most effectively. Even today, he feels the greatest task
force is college students whose time can be tapped to take India where she has
to go. In the years of teaching and learning, we learned what we would like our
school to be. It would be a place where children grow as free individuals; grow
without hearing the words ‘you can’t’ ‘you shouldn’t’; grow in an atmosphere where one is
appreciated and cared for; grow without the stress of having to prove oneself
every step of the way; allowed to be playful; follow one’s own inclination and
learn of the world through that. Children love the world they live in. To them
insects are as interesting as elephants, the penguin as fascinating as the moon.
Their desire to know grows everyday and their curiosity of the world is deep.
Our work, as we see it, is to ensure that they see this beauty in themselves;
that their curiosity translates into love for the world.
Shikshayatan is an on going
experiment at various levels. Children come from homes that barely meet their
needs. We enroll toddlers. Almost half an academic year is spent mainly on
taking care of their physical needs: nutritious food, having them creep, crawl,
brachiate, hop, run so that the neurological pathways are stimulated. We have a
doctor who comes to check on the children and advices on ways to improve their
constitution; for we prefer that the child grows by eating well to taking tonics
- which we do give in very severe cases. When we began, it took us much longer
to put our children on their feet; now we do it faster and with better results.
We began with 15 children; today we have 104 children. The first batch was a
challenge: I had to learn Tamil and they had to learn to speak! There were days
when silence would reign, on others, laughter. We now have teachers who have
been trained in our methods.
We are more aware of the
relationship between emotion and learning. Perfect emotion creates perfect
association creates perfect memory creates the ability to create! So we take
great care not to jangle the child’s emotion. Besides, in every child we see
expressed an eternal value: cheerfulness, joy, fearlessness, curiosity, caring,
love for organization, orderliness, generosity, sense of humor…. And in every
child, we find something that challenges his own growth. We train ourselves to
nurture the best in the child and give the child a sense of security: that each
child is important for the functioning of the school. No labels are attached to
the child; that gives him the greatest freedom. We find that when we work so,
each child learns to resolve the undesirable for himself.
child knows what is special about him, he is an equal anywhere. What he
may not have is only a skill, which can be learned anytime. It is our
goal to give every child this knowledge.
We are now
setting the next stage of experiment. With those children who are independent of
teachers [with reference to reading, math and writing compositions], we have
them choose what they would like to work on. Initially we allow them to choose
for one hour a day. As they learn to utilize the freedom and time effectively,
we allow them to choose their own projects. They are allowed to form teams and
the team could be from different classes or levels. They are also allowed
‘consultation time’ with a teacher who might help if asked. The consultation
time is about quarter of an hour.
They may use the books in the library, the CDs, computers and
encyclopedias to complete their project. The school has four multimedia systems
that the children take turn in using. This kind of work we begin from age six
project work is considered a privilege and every child wants to participate. Our
purpose is to teach children how to channel their own energies, see how they can
evolve their creativity and finally, how harmoniously they can work. Of course
the stages of planning are like the stock market – every one talks and things
crash. But they are functioning in a ‘mini society’ and learning to be
When we decided to teach our
daughter at home, our relationship with our daughter changed. An objective
showering of love was called for and we set ourselves to learn that. We also
wanted to look at the methods of teaching in detail. Teaching a child to read,
through phonetics / letters of the language seemed prosaic and dull. We wanted
something that would be as bright and fun as our daughter. And in a shop, hidden
under a heap of books we found a box that contained flash cards. The cards were
published by The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. We taught
her to read using those cards. At first, it was slow, because we could not
believe the speed with which she was learning. She ran through the thirty odd
cards fast and we began making cards. Enough to say that by four and a half she
was reading Reader’s Digest and her favourite book was K.M.Munshi’s
Krishnaavatara part1. We read the book written by Dr Glenn Doman “Teach your
baby to read”, which should have accompanied the kit, when she was six and well
into her third language!
Dr. Doman’s system of using flash
cards is honed to perfection and when worked exactly as suggested by him in his
book, any child can read of his own and with complete understanding. What
appealed to us is that it takes very little time to teach, it lends itself to
the very young who wander away if we are not fast and interesting enough and –
here is the icing – it is absolutely joyful. The children appear to be passive
as they see the cards being flashed at them. In reality, each word is being
absorbed and filed away for later use. Every picture, every word is a stimulus
that zips around the brain, forming associations, connections and adding a new
dimension to information that may already exist. The children are passive only
at the time of the showing of the cards. They are otherwise so participative,
that unless one really has something new to offer every time, the class can
become bored and would try to get on without a teacher. It is most stimulating
to teach any child using this method. The prep the teacher / parent have to make
is phenomenal and I have seen teachers desperately sharing their work to keep up
with their classes. This method calls for cooperation and sympathy among the
adults for the adults and that gives me great satisfaction. For what better way
to teach harmony than by percept?
We have come across those who ask
why cards? Because cards are a means to the joys of reading. Imagine not being
able to read Bharatiyaar or Attenborough’s The Living Planet, or Capra or Carl
Sagan. Imagine our children not giggling over Dahl’s ‘The Vicar of Nibbleswick’,
or being delighted by Jane Austen. If using cards will lead them to this, then
yes. Because this method creates an avid reader.
The question arises: what about art,
crafts, music? They are essential to growth. If reading is mental stimulation,
we want something that balances the emotion. And these are means to touch the
child. Clay modeling, painting… besides they enhance the power of concentration
and they know the joy of creation.
Often we are asked: what happens if
we teach our child in this method, would he not find it boring in school? Do you
not give your child ice cream although he is liable to catch a cold and stay at
home? Besides, if a few hundred children of this kind go to school, why, schools
would change; the system would change; our children would do better. We all agree that the system needs
overhauling; yet we are reluctant to take the first step. There is no fear of
the unknown here. Our children are much more capable than we think they are.
Children in our school show an aptitude for entrepreneurship. Gone is the time
when my best dream for the children was a good home and good food at home. Today
I cannot confine them to my simplistic views. To tell a funny story: due to
heavy rains, the water in the fields rose and inundated us. The whole place was
damp. Since a number of our children have ‘primary complex’ we decided to close
school. An hour later, they came back very pleased with themselves. They had
devised fishing rods and were trying to catch the carps that may have escaped a
fish farm close by! Not only did they catch the fish, they took some home, sold
the rest and saw a movie! They were seven years old! How can we confine them to
children will create a world all their own. We can participate in that creation
by teaching happily all that we know so that they begin where we leave off.
The experiment moves
when we were still in Mumbai, we began Primrose Institute to train parents to
teach their child at home. Sushila Narayanaswamy, my sister, is now conducting
workshops besides having a nursery by the same name.
In ’99, we helped start Primrose
School, Pondicherry a unit of Mother’s Service Society. The school in less than
three years is “a great, good, successful effort that has won enough public
approbation.” There too, we are ready to have children working on their
Aurochild at Cuddalore, Balgram at
Malavli in Maharashtra, Isai Ambalam at Auroville, Manthan Vidyashram in Chennai
and Zenith Infant’s Club at Tiruchi. These are some schools whose teachers we
have trained; whose curriculum is based on ours and who have started with the
materials we have created here.
ago, we began writing for the New Sunday Express – the column “Alternative
Schooling”. The scenario is changing. We hope that from being Alternative, we
become the norm!