Ritam "Udavi: Challenges of an Educational Experiment in the Village"
“No, there will be a primary class problem for the whole population…for Auroville. And that will be an interesting problem: how can we prepare the children, children taken from anywhere, who have no way of learning at home, whose parents are ignorant, who have no possibility of having any means to learn nothing, nothing, nothing but the raw material, like that— how can we teach them to live? That will be an interesting problem.”
Udavi Gentillesse School is amongst the first schools started in the Auroville area, on the outskirts of Edayanchavdi village. Presently it has two hundred and seventy students starting at the age of three at the lower kindergarten and going up to matriculation (class X). Studies are conducted in the English medium. Students also study Tamil and some opt for French as a second language in the sixth grade. There is an almost an equal mix of boys and girls and most of them belong to Edayanchavadi village.
Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER) took up the management of Udavi school from the Auroshikha Agarbatti company belonging to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram sometime in 1999. This was necessitated as violence broke out in the Agarbatti factory on account of labor disputes and its management took a decision to close the factory adjacent to the school and remove themselves from the premises. The school was also closed for about six months. Responding to the pleas of the parents to open the school, the Auroshikha management entered into an agreement with SAIIER and the The Udavi Gentillesse School Trust to hand over the management of the school to SAIIER. Anuben from the Ashram is the director of the school and I am its co-director.
The school as we found it was cast in a traditional mould with the difference that on one day of the week there were only creative activities. There was a daily sports programme and a morning assembly dedicated to prayer. The stress was on rote learning and there were exams each month to ensure that there was no let up in the work of memorizing. The saving grace was the Kindergarten section where teachers prepared innovative learning games and used them in the class.
The challenges have come in the creation of an environment of the school, in making changes in the expectations of the parents of the students, the underlying assumptions of the teachers in what they are supposed to be doing as teachers and the expectations of the children, in what was their role as students.
I would like to share my experience of the last 6 years at Udavi in meeting all these various situations.
The physical environment of a school plays an important role in the education of children. A clean and beautiful environment in and around the school stimulates the aesthetic sensibilities and nurtures the psychic being of the children. We are blessed with a very big school campus with a large number of beautiful trees growing in it. No garden could be created in the extensive lands around the buildings as the boundaries of the school were quite porous. Goats, cattle and thieves could easily intrude. The main school area is now completely protected by a compound wall and the bit that remains to be done is in the sports area. The trees needed trimming and some trees needed to be pulled out as they were growing into each other. Improvements on all these areas have been going on steadily and have not posed any serious challenges. The school campus is beginning to have the feel of a cared-for garden.
When we entered the school, the first thing we found was that there were exams every month, as a revision for what children had studied that month. So, at any given point of time you would find children with open books and note books in the morning walking around in the school memorising their lesson for the pending exam after the morning assembly.
This sight was the symptom of a state of affairs contrary to all that Sri Aurobindo and Mother stood for. So the first thing we did was to stop all these exams. Naturally there was a furious response from the parents who could not understand why this was being done. We had some meetings with the parents and their representatives and by way of compromise, it was agreed that a mid-term and a final exam would be held and that report cards would be issued to the parents so that they could see how their children are doing in their studies.
Books and curriculum
The next change that we introduced related to the curriculum. It was a tradition in the school to follow certain text books in every subject starting from second standard and the teachers would simply go through the books with the students, give them home work and so to say, cover the course. The whole work of the teacher was to finish the course. Since 1999 till today we have found teachers, who have been trained in other ways of teaching than the lecture method. A number of teachers from Mirambika (a school dedicated to free progress of children which has an extensive teacher training component and is part of the Delhi Branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) have come and they have given another orientation through the project method. They have taken up projects at all levels of schooling except the ninth and tenth grades (at which time the focus progressively shifts to preparing for the Board exam) and started to teach children in a way that they take responsibility for their learning and find interest in their learning. This way of teaching did away with the traditional textbooks that were being used. Once again there were objections raised from the parents. They could not understand how learning could take place without these books.
Many parents offered to pay for the books, thinking that we were trying to save money by not buying the books for the students. Some even complained they would go to the School board authorities to complain as what we were doing was not permissible. Fortunately for us the matriculation system gives a lot of freedom to the school, to teach in the way they want, and what they want. The prescribed curriculum is for the examination that takes place in the 10th grade level. We did not compromise here and explained to the parents the reasons for what we were doing. We were also fortunate as many teachers trained in the traditional methods who were working with us secured government jobs and left the school. We could then replace them by teachers who knew how to teach in a different way.
The next difficulty came in relation to crafts. As part of the integrated learning programme, we have introduced in our school many crafts like carpentry, clay work, tailoring, and electrical work. There has been a lot of resistance from the parents. They said that they had not sent their children to the school to learn carpentry and things like that. We had also invited the children to take responsibility for the maintenance of the school and participate in the cleaning of the school compound and watering of the plants etc. and there was a great resistance from the parents for this too.
Once again we did not compromise and discussed with the parents and explained to them why we do all these and what positive benefit it could have for their children. Slowly the resistance to this has become less. Yet in the minds of the children there is a feeling that manual skills are not what they come to school to learn. As other schools do not have that then why should they have it?
In relation to this about three years ago we had identified certain students who were academically very weak, and we felt did not have the capacity to prepare for the matriculation exam and that we would be forcing them to learn certain subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, zoology and maths at a high level, as they were not really interested to study these.
We invited these students to stay in the school but follow a different scheme of education where they could learn things that they really wanted to learn and also master some manual skills so that they could prepare themselves for their future working life. Six students were invited to join this course. They joined reluctantly. The parents opposed the scheme vehemently but accepted only when faced with the alternative that their child would have to leave the school as their child had been regularly failing to secure pass-marks in the examinations. These six students found themselves stigmatised in the school and the other students considered them dull and they themselves started to think of themselves as inferior. This program had to be dropped under the cumulative pressure of these mindsets.
Values of the school
It became clear to us that we had to deal with the mindset of students who were affected by their environment and believed that education is all about passing examinations and ultimately getting a certificate which allows you to take up the next examination and getting the next certificate which will enable you to get a good job. It has taken us a long time – and we cannot say that we are fully successful in our endeavour – to change the mindset. In the school environment we introduced the idea that there is a value in many things apart from doing well in examinations. The idea that different students were good at different things like games, athletics, gymnastics, clay, tailoring, or carpentry or that there are students who have a spirit of adventure or are good in music, dance, painting or theatre has been fostered in our school environment by giving a good amount of time to these activities and properly honoring the achievements in all these areas. Slowly the children are experiencing another meaning of learning and going to school. They experience learning as joyful and as making some progress in themselves. They learn the art of concentration and the need to making effort and persevere to progress. They begin to have a relationship of trust and friendship with their teachers.
They understand now that the school is meant for them and that it is not possible to live and work here without a basic collective discipline. What follows from this understanding is a self-discipline from the students and almost no necessity of teachers' supervision. This has come as a great relief as the school campus is very large and to supervise every corner of it is next to impossible.
One of the handicaps the village children face is their lack of exposure to a lot that is going around in the world. The introduction of channel T.V. has made some difference yet what they see on the screen is not part of their life in a living way. Their mindsets tend to be narrow, their concerns very limited and their aspirations if any determined by the films – wanting to be a doctor and help the poor – which wear off quite soon. We have used the morning assembly to introduce many types of ideas and people in their lives. Interesting personalities from the Ashram, Auroville and Pondicherry have addressed the students. People from different cultures have presented special features of their culture. We have told serialized versions of the Mahabharat, Ramayan, Bible and Krishna's story. We have discussed issues as they come up either in the village, the country or the world. And students have presented their work to other students and answered their questions. We have practiced making our minds quiet for a progressively longer time. In this way the Morning Assembly of about twenty minutes has been used to stretch their sensibilities beyond what they are able to do in their class rooms.
We observed that the children were not eating properly. The lunch that they brought from home was, in most cases, very meagre and was not a properly balanced diet. Since a year and a half we have decided to provide lunch to the school children. They also receive a morning snack and an evening snack. We find this a basic necessity in the context of a poor village like Edayanchavady.
In conclusion I would like to say that the effort to bring the light of the principles enunciated by Sri Aurobindo and Mother, to the education of the village children has been rewarding and fruitful at one level but frustrating at others. For the first ten years in the school the children begin to flower in many directions and with proper observation and guidance they are nurtured in the direction of their swabhava. But so long as we are linked to the matriculation system of a state board exam, there are obvious limitations to the proper application of these principles of education. Towards the end of their career in the school, the students are restricted to learning only a few areas or 'subjects' as they are called and the curriculum that is set for the subjects is at a very narrow but high level. This precludes the possibility of experiencing and understanding this knowledge for the young minds. They are forced to learn by rote all this information to be reproduced at the examination. It is unfortunate that we have to subject our students to this exercise. But our hands are tied as any effort to de-link ourselves from the board examination will make the school and its programme quite useless in the minds of the parents and there is a certainty that they will remove their children from our school and put them in some other school offering certificates of the recognized boards. The gains of the first ten years still justify the problem of the "exam years" at the school. It has been observed by many who visit the school that the children exhibit an openness in their personality, a capacity to think for themselves, are able to express themselves in English quite well and are capable of taking up responsibilities. All these are considered quite unique for a village school.
We can only hope that possibilities of a free progress system of education will be available to students in India in the near future and that a united plea is made to the government to do away with standardized tests and make the syllabus flexible to suit the needs of different students.