Learning beyond the textbook

Last Updated 16 January 2019, 19:00 IST

In the film Born Free in 1966, Don Black and John Barry had composed the following lyrics for a theme song which goes --

Born Free, as Free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born Free to follow your heart.

Little did he know that besides the lion who was set free into the jungle, it would one day pertain to children who needed their freedom too.

Children are ‘born free’ knowing no religion, caste and class. As they grow up, they are forced into a social construct, where they become like bank lockers having a timeline which is irrevocable and tightly locked.

The first one will have the developmental milestone about when the child has to walk, talk and when the child is ready to start learning. Subsequent lockers will have academic and social norms written in stone with little scope for any diversity and thus made to flow with the tide. By the time the child is seven or eight years, they are given an identity and education which are determined by the social strata to which they belong. The child has little scope to think for her or himself and often goes with the tide.

As adults, educators and policymakers, we are to blame for this robotic evolution of children. The argument in favour of this system is that children have to fit into the society they live in, learn as per the norms prescribed by the Board or school to make a safe future with economic security. A little scope is given to developing their thinking and opinion-making skills and so, a society with members who can think objectively of issues is glaringly absent. Adults and educators should facilitate children to explore their strengths and also contribute to an egalitarian society keeping their freedom intact. Here are some practices followed by alternative schools to achieve this goal.

Freedom of choice

Children, even if they are very young, should be allowed to choose the clothes they want to wear, the food they want to eat, the books they want to read and discern right from wrong. In this process, the children might run into wrong choices, but as adults, we need to guide them in the right direction while respecting their decision.

In some of these alternative schools, the children are allowed to choose their class name every year by voting for a particular theme. Allowing children to choose brings the onus on them to adhere to a decision and also a sense of ownership of the decision. Further on, choices of what their study time should be, choice of courses and careers they want to pursue should be left to them to decide with adults acting as facilitators to steer them on this path.

Awareness of rights

The Right to Education (RTE) guarantees education to all, and the children should be made aware of this right as well as the members of the society. In a scenario where children abuse is a flaring concern, the children should also be educated on protecting themselves from such abuse.

In alternative schools, children are taught to be aware that they need not tolerate physical and verbal abuse by parents, teachers and other members.

In most educational institutions, rules are framed by the management and in houses by the parents, while norms are set by the society. Children are meant to adhere to these rules no matter what, and the consequences of disobeying them are severe.

As the children have no part in framing the rules, they are not motivated to obey them. They either disobey the rules and bear the consequences, or deceive elders and make them believe that they are obeying the rules in order to be on the safe track with adults.

In some schools, children make their own rules and govern themselves by conducting a parliament consisting of the whole school to resolve issues pertaining to the school and allowing them to express their opinions fearlessly. The school space belongs to them as much as it does to the adults. Taking ownership of the space and being responsible for it brings about a certain degree of discipline, which otherwise cannot be enforced.

Non-competitive atmosphere

Children should be free to learn at their own pace and in a non-threatening atmosphere. By grading children and comparing them with each other is not a ‘healthy competition’. The whole learning process by the teacher and the taught is often geared to securing marks than the learning itself. It is often argued that it forms an important requirement of the system itself.

In some alternative schools, learning outcomes are assessed qualitatively rather than quantitatively, giving enough room for diversity. Assessment is done in such a way that a child is able to tell whether he or she has improved in relation to the earlier performance and not in relation to his or her peers.

One of the interesting practices in these schools is self-assessment by the student in one term which reflects how the child felt about teaching and learning process and what aspects of the term were interesting and what were the challenges. This practice serves as a useful tool to reflect how the teacher fared in that term and what the child’s assessment of the teacher was.

School uniforms make children lose their identity. Allowing them to dress as they wish within modest parameters, having a secular school environment, allowing them to conduct assemblies themselves, choosing and buying their library books, establishing their identity through inclusive art practices are some of the aspects in alternative schools which help make the school a free space for the child.

Limitations & challenges

Putting these ideas into practice has its limitations. When children are given the freedom to speak and think for themselves, adults find it as a threat to their authority. A question often asked in these schools is “How much freedom do we give?” Negotiating rather than imposing seems to be a key answer.

Implementing suggestions given by the children, resolving issues with their consensus, negotiating rather than reprimanding and developing their skills at their own pace may come in the way of teachers having to implement the policies of institutions that have prescribed norms. But within the classrooms, a teacher can make these changes without hurting institutional frameworks.

‘Enforcing discipline’ is a term often used by educational institutions and parents alike. For them, it seems to be the easiest path to follow because then they don’t have the challenge of dealing with vibrant children who may question their decisions.

“Walk in a straight line”, “Sit in rows”, “Follow textbooks”, “Finish the portions”, “Pass the Board exams”... are all parents seem to want. Children who grow up in such cloistered spaces believe that is the way of life.

Parents enrolling children into alternative schools often find their children “speaking too much”. Alternative schools face this challenge in having parents think differently and cope with social pressures where such practices are not accepted. Parents have to learn to believe that children should emerge as thinking individuals. One of the advantages of alternative schools is they make children grow confident and prepare them to articulate their thoughts and express their views. It makes their further education smooth as it has armed them with analytical and interpretive skills.

The school has not only made them self-decisive but also reason out with the issues in the society. In short, they are made ready to face the world.

(Published 16 January 2019, 18:48 IST)

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