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.

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

Schools: Muni International

I visited many alternative schools and wrote short articles about them as part of a fellowship I had with Wipro Applying Thought In Schools (WATIS). These articles were later published as a regular column in the Teacher Plus magazine. I will post some of these articles here to highlight the variety of experiments going on in the alternative schools of India.

The first post in this series is about Muni International school. The original article is available on the Teacher Plus site here.

Among all the schools featured on my list, Muni International is undoubtedly the most politically incorrect one.

Consider the following:
– Their daily prayer asks for a blessing from Maa Saraswati.
– The school promotes Jeevan Vidya, Agrahar Nagraj’s system of spiritual thought, to all its students.
– Ashok Thakur, the founder/ principal, cheerfully claims ignorance of what most people would consider foundational aspects of education.
– The school website has videos of Ashok Thakur talking, sitting next to Swami Ramdev.

No, don’t stop reading just yet, because this is a heartening story of a departure from the norm so extreme that it may potentially switch on some dusty, unused light bulbs in your head.

I met Ashok Thakur when he was conducting a training session for teachers in a school run by a friend in Ahmedabad. Ashokji was talking about education and everything he said, even the radical things like not using any textbooks, seemed completely right, as he spoke with the conviction of a practitioner, using real examples from his school in Delhi. When the session was over and my friend and I asked him more about his interesting experiments in schooling, he invited both of us to come to Delhi and see for ourselves. So, it came about that, a few months later, we drove down potholed roads in a down-market part of West Delhi and reached the four-storied building that houses Muni International School.

This happened many years ago but the visit is bright in my memory. Bright with the vibrant brightness of the children we met, their bubbling enthusiasm and joy in showing off their school and their many talents, their comfort level with us as if we were close relatives visiting after a long time, and treating us as if we were on a short visit and were to be made the most of. The whole school seemed full of children comfortable with being around adults! One thing that Ashokji figured out early was that if you make small children speak more than one foreign language every day, by the time they finish school, their fluency will at least guarantee employment. Meanwhile the academic qualification needed could be worked on peripherally and without too much stress. So all the children we met spoke English but they also wanted us to hear German songs and French poems and wanted us to watch them enact Japanese skits. Even the very small ones from the primary section! It was truly breathtaking!

We started with a bullet-point list of ‘political incorrectness’ so perhaps it is fitting that we counterbalance that with a list of ‘educational correctness’. Here is a partial list:
– There are no textbooks used in the school. The syllabus from NCERT is used to anchor the learning and the children question, discover, and explore the subjects with the help of their teachers and using the available online and offline resources. The focus is on anchoring learning in experience. Ashokji mentioned that a tree that has its leaves arranged such that every leaf gets sunlight is a great way to learn geometry.
– The school parliament has school level MPs, class level MLAs, Councillors, judges, committee members, etc., who are elected from within the classrooms every month. The same child is not allowed to get elected to the same post more than once.
– The school caters to the underprivileged families in the neighborhood.

I remember Ashok Thakur saying that his 8th standard children competed with MA students from a nearby university, the task being to read from a book that nobody had read before and answer questions from it, and the children from Muni International, who had effectively learned how to learn, won hands down. I can well believe it!

Quick facts:

Name of school: Muni International school
Been around since: 2003
Number of teachers/ staff: 40
Number of children: 700
Classes handled: 1 to 12
USP: Caters to poor children. Emphasizes foreign language learning for livelihood security.
Location: Uttam Nagar, New Delhi

Hind Swaraj: M K Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi’s collected works — writings, speeches, letters, interviews and telegrams — have been meticulously compiled with appendices of relevant background material by the publications division of the Government of India. The collected works runs into 100 volumes of some 500 pages each. The people who have read through or sampled these writings say that the best introduction to this huge compilation is the small, extremely influential booklet called ‘Hind Swaraj.’ Hind Swaraj, written in 1908 and presented as a dialogue between a reader and an editor (Gandhiji) contains in compressed form many of the ideas that run through the collected works. You may find yourself disagreeing with many parts of it, but it contains a systematic deconstruction of modernity.

Here is an extract from the beginning of chapter 18 to intrigue you:

READER: In the whole of our discussion, you have not demonstrated the necessity for education: we always complain of its absence among us. We notice a movement for compulsory education in our country. The Maharaja Gaekwar has introduced it in his territories. Every eye is directed towards them. We bless the Maharaja for it. Is all this effort then of no use ?

EDITOR: If we consider our civilization to be the highest, I have regretfully to say that much of the effort you have described is of no use. The motive of the Maharaja and other great leaders who have been working in this direction is perfectly pure. They, therefore, undoubtedly deserve great praise. But we cannot conceal from ourselves the result that is likely to flow from their effort.

What is the meaning of education? It simply means a knowledge of letters. It is merely an instrument, and an instrument may be well used or abused. The same instrument that may be used to cure a patient may be used to take his life, and so may a knowledge of letters. We daily observe that many men abuse it and very few make good use of it; and if this is a correct statement, we have proved that more harm has been done by it than good.

The ordinary meaning of education is a knowledge of letters. To teach boys reading, writing and arithmetic is called primary education. A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world. He knows fairly well how he should behave towards his parents, his wife, his children and his fellow villagers. He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness ? Do you wish to make him discontented with his cottage or his lot? And even if you want to do that, he will not need such an education. Carried away by the flood of western thought we came to the conclusion, without weighing pros and cons, that we should give this kind of education to the people.

Now let us take higher education. I have learned Geography, Astronomy, Algebra, Geometry, etc. What of that? In what way have I benefited myself or those around me? Why have I learned these things? Professor Huxley has thus defined education: “That man I think has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will and does with ease and pleasure all the work that as a mechanism it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine with all its parts of equal strength and in smooth working order…whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the fundamental truths of nature . . . whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience . . .who has learnt to hate all vileness and to respect others as himself. Such a one and no other, I conceive, has had a liberal education, for he is in harmony with nature. He will make the best of her and she of him.”

If this is true education. I must emphatically say that the sciences I have enumerated above I have a never been able to use for controlling my senses. Therefore, whether you take elementary education or higher education, it is not required for the main thing. It does not make men of us. It does not enable us to do our duty.

(The booklet is available for free download here)

On Education: J Krishnamurti

The following are three excerpts from chapter 1 of ‘On Education’ by J Krishnamurti. The full book is available for download here.

Excerpt 1:

Education is not only learning from books, memorizing some facts, but also learning how to look, how to listen to what the books are saying, whether they are saying something true or false. All that is part of education. Education is not just to pass examinations, take a degree and a job, get married and settle down, but also to be able to listen to the birds, to see the sky, to see the extraordinary beauty of a tree, and the shape of the hills, and to feel with them, to be really, directly in touch with them. As you grow older, that sense of listening, seeing, unfortunately disappears because you have worries, you want more money, a better car, more children or less children. You become jealous, ambitious, greedy, envious; so you lose the sense of the beauty of the earth. You know what is happening in the world. You must be studying current events. There are wars, revolts, nation divided against nation. In this country too there is division, separation, more and more people being born, poverty, squalor and complete callousness. Man does not care what happens to another so long as he is perfectly safe. And you are being educated to fit into all this.

Excerpt 2:

Do you know what it means to attend, to pay attention? When you pay attention, you see things much more clearly. You hear the bird singing much more distinctly. You differentiate between various sounds. When you look at a tree with a great deal of attention, you see the whole beauty of the tree. You see the leaves, the branch, you see the wind playing with it. When you pay attention, you see extraordinarily clearly. Have you ever done it? Attention is something different from concentration. When you concentrate, you don’t see everything. But when you are paying attention, you see a great deal. Now, pay attention. Look at that tree and see the shadows, the slight breeze among the leaves. See the shape of the tree. See the proportion of the tree in relation to other trees. See the quality of light that penetrates through the leaves, the light on the branches and the trunk. See the totality of the tree. Look at it that way, because I am going to talk about something to which you have to pay attention. Attention is very important, in the class, as well as when you are outside, when you are eating, when you are walking. Attention is an extraordinary thing.

Excerpt 3:

Learn about everything in yourself, because if you learn from yourself about yourself, then you will not be a secondhand human being. So you should, if I may suggest, from now on, find out how to live entirely differently and that is going to be difficult, for I am afraid most of us like to find an easy way of living. We like to repeat what other people say, what other people do, because it is the easiest way to live to conform to the old pattern or to a new pattern. We have to find out what it means never to conform and what it means to live without fear. This is your life, and nobody is going to teach you, no book, no guru. You have to learn from yourself, not from books. There is a great deal to learn about yourself. It is an endless thing, it is a fascinating thing, and when you learn about yourself from yourself, out of that learning wisdom comes. Then you can live a most extraordinary, happy, beautiful life.

Links for further study:

There are many talks by J Krishnamurti available on YouTube. The following are relevant examples:
What Is The Point of Education?
Is there such a thing as right education?