M.P. Vijayakumar, IAS pioneered Activity-Based Learning in government and corporation schools across Tamil Nadu. On Teacher’s Day, he talks about the initiative that is transforming our education system

The first thing that catches the eye in that well-lit classroom is the pada pandal. Strung form one end of the room to the other like clotheslines, they carry pictures drawn by students. The colourful sketches flutter in the wind as Standard I students sit in circles to study verbs using actions at the Chennai Middle School, Triplicane High Road. For them, school is fun, learning is easy and exams are not scary. All thanks to M.P. Vijayakumar, a retired civil servant, who lives in a village near Coimbatore.

Revolutionising education

Activity-Based Learning (ABL) has revolutionised our education system. As you read this, a little girl in an elementary school could be doing a mono act in class to study animals; a bunch of boys could be collecting seeds on their school premises to study numbers. They learn using their five senses; songs, dance and games have replaced bulky textbooks. Today, the ABL method is being implemented in 37,766 government, aided, and corporation schools for classes from I to IV across Tamil Nadu. It all began in 1993, when Vijayakumar was the collector of Vellore District.

“The insight came to me when we were identifying students for the Arivoli Iyakkam,” begins Vijayakumar. His team carried out the task of rehabilitating child labourers who dropped out of school. But why did children drop out of school in the first place? They were given free noon meals, textbooks, uniforms…School did not interest them for some reason. The problem, Vijayakumar realised was the method of teaching — not the teachers, not the students. “The problem was never with the child,” he stresses. Condemning a child as unfit to study for no fault of his/hers is a “crime”.

An alternative way

Vijayakumar was looking for an alternative way to teach the rescued children who were from multiple age-groups. He came upon the method practised at Rishi Valley School, Andhra Pradesh.

It was simple and effective. “They had broken down the skills children should learn into six or seven phases,” he says. In the first phase, the child was prepared to study a concept using activities such as rhymes. The second phase involved introducing the concept. In the third and fourth phases, they were given various activities to understand it. The concept was reinforced in the fifth phase using more activities. The last phase was evaluation by the child himself/herself, at the end of which he/she mastered the skill. These activities were arranged on a ladder with logos for each. Students figuratively climbed up the ladder and went past the various ‘milestones’.

Vijayakumar tried out the method in non-formal schools in Vellore with good results. From then on, there was no turning back. He pursued it with vigour when he was Corporation Commissioner for Chennai in 2003. Thirteen corporation schools were identified, from which the teachers were sent to Rishi Valley to train. “We borrowed only the philosophy and improved on the logic,” explains Vijayakumar.

Soon, 264 schools in Chennai came to adopt ABL. Thus was born a teaching method that challenged the rote-learning technique that turned students into memorising machines.

Vijayakumar became the State Project Director of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme in 2006. With support from his “extraordinary team” he went on to implement ABL across the State. Tamil Nadu thus became the first in India to incorporate this method — right now, 17 other states have adopted it.

The programme could not have been a success without the support of teachers. Vijayakumar says that they worked with interest. “We invited them to see the transformation in schools in Chennai,” he says and adds that he abhors the practice of blaming teachers for everything.

Once they gained the confidence of the teachers, implementation became easy. The method’s success lay in the fact that it made students develop an interest in studying. Children who skipped lessons during the harvest season and every odd festival, began to attend school regularly.

ABL yields to the pace of every child. If a student misses classes for say ten days, he/she can pick up from where he/she left off. This way, they don’t miss a thing.

Compared to the “draconian” method that forced a child to take exams on concepts he/she barely understood and branded them failures, ABL gives them “a sense of achievement,” feels Vijayakumar. The man spent several days on the road, travelling to schools across the State to see to the implementation.

It was on occasions such as these that he came across heartwarming incidences and people, some of whom made him cry. “We once went to a school in a remote village in Pudukottai.

A young teacher there was doing an extraordinary job. She told me, ‘Now I see purpose in life. My students are asking many questions in class…they are studying so well. As their teacher, what more can I ask for?’”

Game changer

Vijayakumar has adopted government schools in his native village of Malayandi Pattanam near Coimbatore “to identify gaps and fill them”. He, along with a few friends, has also adopted a government hospital and public toilets in the area and is overseeing their maintenance.

What teachers say…

A. Vasanthi: Students become teachers themselves since they help each other when they work in groups. They become close to us…they touch our shoulders as they talk…While some of us struggled to grasp ABL, students adapted to it quite fast. But we need more support from parents. Some of them ask us why we don’t give homework every day.

P. Amala Maria Selvi: My Standard I students do not cry to come to school. They are interested in studying.