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Our learning of the past ten years

MY PERSONAL GROWTH

I was born in a small village in Muzaffarnagar District of Uttar Pradesh. My father then moved to Bombay now Mumbai, to work as a clerk in the Reserve Bank of India. I was a typical naughty girl and soon grew in to a tom boy who used to bash up other boys who teased my younger brother. In playing the Police thief game I was always the thief that could not be caught because I was a great tree climber and a very patient person so I could hide in the same branches for hours on end. Some times I used to keep hiding long after the other had given up looking for me and gone home. It was during these times of waiting that I learnt a lot about myself and others. I got a lot of time to reflect, to observe the insects and animals in the trees that I was sitting in. I got time to think, which was rare. I got time to observe people from my perch, adults as well as peers. I got time to consider alternatives and not get into the general rut.

It was during such times that I began to think about what I did, what I enjoyed, the school I went to and the friends I spent time with. I was in my 9th grade when I first got a chance to express my thought in an essay writing exercise. We were all supposed to write an essay on “My School”. I thought this was an invitation to share our thoughts and went on to write that in my school there should be no exams, no teachers to scold and insult, no text books only lot of story books and lot of time to explore and experiment on our own. My teacher of course tore my essay to bits and dumped it in the waste paper basket. I was totally confused. When I shared the event with my father he explained that I was supposed to write that the school I went to was the best and that I liked it very much etc. Then I sat down and wrote a pile of lies and submitted my essay. A few days after that, my father bought me a book- The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I was too young to read it myself so he helped me to read the part where Plato’s Utopia is described. It was then that the connection of what happens in the school and what happens in the society was made in my mind. And I decided to have a school where children would be allowed to be what they were meant to be by nature. Generous, gentle, healthy, hardy, courteous, co-operative, inquisitive, humble, happy and content. I decided that in my school the focus would be to inculcate these qualities.

However that was still a long way in time. I had to finish my schooling. I then completed my degree in Architecture from Sir J.J. School of Architecture. Still things felt all wrong in the city. I decided to go to Auroville for my architectural training period of six months. In Auroville I met Umesh, who wanted to do organic farming. I thought that the school and farming were a perfect combination of activities and so we got together and came to Dharmapuri in 1992. We bought a piece of completely degraded land. In the first 8 years I did a lot of work planting trees, fencing, designing bunds and plugging gullies. Then in 2000 I started the school.

THE BEGININGS OF THE SCHOOL

When we started the school in 2000, I started with the feeling that learning should be fun. The reading of books by Maria Montessori and Mahatma Gandhi about their thoughts on the need of making freedom a part of the school pedagogy to enhance learning appealed to me a lot. To clarify my understanding of freedom, I read J. Krishnamurthy. The clear descriptions that “Freedom always comes with responsibility”, that comes across in his discussions made an impact on my interpretation of freedom and how it can be facilitated in the school.

We started the school with 3 children. (two girls of ours and one boy of the teacher’s {Madhavaraj} sister) The first challenge was to make the teacher understand freedom and the responsibility that comes with it ie., to make Madhavaraj understand that it was his responsibility to make the lesson interesting enough so that the children learn. This started our new teacher off. He began to play games with the children, began to act out stories using the children as characters in the story to keep their interest alive. He began to sing rhymes with actions, to make them understand the English Rhymes. We always asked what the children wanted to do, so that we could solicit their full co-operation.

Still it was unclear what must be taught! The first year we had four more children who had dropped out of the local Govt school join our little band of learners( because none of us classified as a teacher) we just followed some available text book and got into the rut of teaching the alphabet. Soon all the initial fun of learning was over and we were becoming very worried that the children were not learning and we could not do what we started about story telling and song and dance with the text books that were prescribed. We also realized that the children need time with themselves and with each other. All children want to communicate mostly with each other, they want to share and they want to do something on their own. Maria Montessori’s explanation of the role of work in the growth of self reliance and her insistence that the child needs time to simulate the world in its mind and needs concrete material to make abstract concepts clear struck as a solution to two problems at the same time. The children could have the freedom to do constructive work on their own and the process and procedure of placing the material and completing the task would inculcate self discipline and responsibility towards the learning environment.

But our search for Montessori material brought us to a dead end because the material was exorbitantly expensive. We decided to make the teaching material using cheap materials like hard board, and some soft woods. The process of making our own material was very enlightening. We came up with many new ways of making our work easier and also with new ideas for teaching concepts.

So in the second part of the first year we had worked and got ready some of the Montessori material and the children began to feel lighter and more content. That made them more tolerant of our attempts at teaching them some alphabet.

But at the end of the first academic year we realized that the method of teaching the alphabet and then getting on to words had a basic flaw, in that, if we observe the natural learning process of children they learn anything only when they need to use it.

The body is the child’s first tool for learning. Its various attempts at learning to see, to hear, to feel , to talk ,and to move are made with out conscious emphasis on the learning .

Only through the body experiences does the mind learn to recognize its parents and loved ones. The child learns to use its body to move in the desired direction. It learns to use its tongue to make the various sounds it hears. It learns to recognize the sounds of various animals and humans in the vicinity. It learns to walk. It learns to talk.

It learns to get what it wants by crying and throwing tantrums .It has the intelligence to train the adults around it to respond to its every need and desire.

This observation, if carried to its logical conclusion, would mean that the child should be let to pick up the skills as and when he/ she needs them in the process of living their life. So there should be no space called school and there should be no one teacher. Learning should evolve from the life experiences of the child. Any such learning will not be a burden to the child and there will be no conflict between the interests of the child and environment.

We also felt that by sitting in class and trying to learn to read the children actually develop stress. This stress perhaps was one of the reasons of violence in the schools among children. This I had observed in our school as a child. There was so much frustration because of the difference between what was expected of us as children and what we wanted to do as children. The competition was also a source of continuous stress.

But what is it that created that disparity that leads to disharmony and internal conflict that gives rise to acts of violence to self or the environment in our school? The possible answer had us dumb founded. It was the inactivity in the classrooms that was the reason for the stress in our situation. Children are also exposed to violence within their families and through the media. All this gives them ideas about how to express the feeling of stress with in them.

WHAT TO TEACH

Since our focus was on the fun and enjoyment of learning, we were uncomfortable that whatever we did in the confined space of the class room was going to create stress. I began to study the reasons behind the feelings of frustration and stress.

According to the knowledge of psychology that relates to cognitive dissonance and change of attitudes, it becomes very imperative that a person has minimum conflict or discordance with regard to what he/she does and what he/she wants to do, between what he or she thinks he/she is like and what others give as feed back. These contradictory cognitions may be attitudes, beliefs, or ones awareness of his or her behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. If you change attitudes, then presumably behavior will change. More surprisingly, if you change a person’s behavior, the person will often change attitudes to match the behavior

In Kurt Lewin‘s famous heuristic formula, behaviour can be viewed as a function of the person and the environment. Behaviour is influenced by attitudes and the self concept of the person. Attitudes that are well remembered and central to our self-concept are more likely to lead to behavior, and measures of general attitudes do predict patterns of behavior over time.

People develop their self-concepts by varied means, including feedback from others, self-perception, social comparison and introspection. By comparison to relevant others, people gain information about themselves, and they make inferences that are relevant to self-esteem. The theory of self-perception, which is another significant theory where Buber and his I-thou discussion is concerned, states that a person’s attitude comes from how they perceive their behavior and the circumstances around them that cause the behavior to occur (Utah, 2002). All individuals have experiences of the world that surrounds them, and the various thoughts that these people have about the world are based on these experiences. The work that dealt with this reflected not only an interest in logic but also in language, mathematics, and perception, as well as some various types of representations such as imagination, expectation, and memory.

To facilitate the change of attitude we could create learning situations where attitudes that are positive and help the development of self concept are encouraged.

For this the person must be interested in what they are learning, receptive to the topic, and find truth in what they see and hear, or they will not be interested in changing their attitudes and beliefs to fit the newly discovered information.

So essentially it turned out that the learning of the three R’s is easy compared to learning of attitudes that will generate harmony in the self and in the environment. If we are able to make the attitudinal changes needed for learning and self reliance in the environment of freedom and responsibility our task as teachers is done.

Concepts, theories, numbers, languages all are secondary skills when compared to the skill of learning about oneself -what each one likes, enjoys and wants from others. The primary task is to develop a self concept in the child that is positive. The children should believe that they are good, resourceful, ingenious, enthusiastic, co-operative, free to express themselves, sympathetic and wonderful in every sense of the word.

HOW TO TEACH A CHILD TO OBSERVE ITSELF AND OTHERS WITH EMPATHY:

Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward the adoption of an attitude, idea, or behavior by rational or emotive means. Persuasion relies on “appeals” rather than strong pressure or coercion.

The other more convincing and sure method of transferring an attitude to young minds is by example. The adults around the children are being observed all the time by the child and that the attitudes of the adults are easily absorbed by the children is a fact. Then the onus of being what they want the child to be is on the adults in the environment or the teachers so to speak. So it became imperative that the teachers were good, resourceful, ingenious, enthusiastic, co-operative, free to express themselves, sympathetic and wonderful in every sense of the word.

Now, that is a tall order for a teacher! But here is where honesty came to the rescue. The fact that none of us is right and good all the time, but what is important is that we are always striving to do what is right. Our effort is towards correcting our shortcomings and working towards harmony and justice all the time. That forgiving oneself for small faults and recognizing the same need for others is what it takes to make an environment where each person is respected for his or her strong points and forgiven for his or her shortcomings. This builds a community where all are equal because all are doing their best to make the environment what it should be – healthy, just and considerate of others while being centered on understanding one self.

THE CURRICULUM

Can education be designed to understand that our action towards positive changes in society begins with a change within us? Can it help us realize that if we cannot control our actions, it is futile to complain about or try to control those of other’s? The focus of change around us is ourselves. If we trust, we are more likely to be trusted! If we respect, we shall be respected! If we are happy with whatever we have no one can hold a stake in our happiness! If we understand that each individual is doing his or her best within his or her means with respect to the experiences they have in their lives, then at least we can, in our interaction with them, give them better experiences to refer to in future!

Experimenting with Air…

To understand the world around, one has to first learn about oneself. We have to be able to talk freely about our likes and dislikes, about our abilities and interests, our fears and inhibitions, our strengths and aptitudes. We have to recognize that others are our partners in our understanding.

The environment and the activities in the school have to be such that they allow us to explore ourselves to the fullest without judgment and comparison.

The activities have to be meaningful and constructive. And each inmate of the school should have the experience of freedom and the initiative that comes with it. Through understanding of our role in maintaining harmony in our environment we learn a lot about our selves and gain respect for the others.

We were convinced that concepts could and should be taught through songs, stories, theatre, farming and a whole lot of other activities that should be linked together as a whole. The present system of different subjects we felt hindered synthesis of knowledge and put a lot of load on the child unnecessarily.

So we decided to introduce math through activities of counting seeds, measuring soil and water in small and large containers. Through this we can easily introduce the usefulness of tens; hundreds etc and bring the children to realize that Numbers are built easily and that they can build them! The same measuring activities are useful for observing the arrival of fractions in the minds of the child when they need to know the exact hand span length.

Similarly science is the art of observation and deduction by asking a series of questions not merely an act of committing to memory a volume of facts and theories. To learn science we need to observe the environment around us. We need to ask appropriate questions. We need to give the children a chance to attempt to answer these from their limited exposure and then expose them to the art of observation and deduction. For example: In the lesson about birds and their foods all the facts about the kind of beak and claws and the food habits of the birds are given. But if the same was deduced from observing the claws and beaks of different birds and watching what they eat and where they are mostly found, there would be no need to memorize the same.

Keeping all these requirements in mind and deciding against the segregation of learning into subjects, we decided to classify our learning into five basic modules centered on the five elements: Sun, Earth, Water, Air and Space.

The five elements are essential for survival. The children learn the physical properties and experience these elements through their five senses. We call this type of learning Experiential Learning.

We all know that learning is much more accessible for practical use if it is experiential or has been acquired by doing. The basic essential concepts deemed necessary by the educational boards and institutions are incorporated in stories and songs and repeated and recited in class.

The children make concept drawings to express what they have understood from the stories and songs. Mathematical activities like counting, sorting, classifying, measuring, measured drawings, scaled drawings and geometrical drawings like the traditional Rangolies are all used to include mathematics in the class activities.

Discussions, walks, observations and questions are a part of everyday classes. Children are guided to speak about what it is they know about the element or the concept and then the teacher helps them to build on their existing knowledge of the same.

The children are divided in to groups. On an empty plot of land they decide and mark the part they want to grow plants in. They measure the plot and draw it to scale. They design the rows and decide what they want to plant. They calculate the quantity of seed they will need. They mulch, water and watch their plants grow. They measure the rate of growth, count the number of flowers and compare with the number of fruits. They observe and sketch the plant parts and the insects and birds that visit. Finally they compute the time they spent gardening and the quantity of vegetables they could harvest and make a cost analysis of their activity. They also learn to make natural pest control extracts and vermi-composting.

This type of knowledge synthesizing process we believe will empower the child and make him/her feel that their methods of learning which helped them acquire so much knowledge till they got to school is a valid method.

        This approach has two main aims: firstly, to make the experiences that students have at the school relevant to the students’ lives, and to rural livelihoods in general. Secondly, the teaching methods should give value to the children’s own knowledge. Children already have a lot of experience of the elements that they have gathered while helping out at home farming. This knowledge of theirs is generally brushed aside as useless.

        By celebrating and using the knowledge that children have about the environment, and by presenting farming as a positive choice socially, the children from our school will have a more balanced perspective.

We do hope that the fact that they have had so much time working in nature will help them resist the parental and peer pressure to make money the sole object of their work.

And maybe a few years down the line they will find ways of living a simple, dignified, economically satisfying and fruitful life based on farming and the values they have imbibed from our school.