What makes alternative schools special? A team from Coimbatore finds out

C Suriyaprakash (extreme right) and Steffan Ajay (extreme left) with a group of children attending the leadership programme at Oasis Foundation, Vadodara.  

At Ahmedabad’s Riverside School, a bunch of students learn the basics of addition and subtraction using ice-cream sticks. Further North, at Tilonia in Rajasthan, a Children’s Parliament addresses the needs of their village. Here, children learn by being an active part of the community. They are a part of the Barefoot College. Back in Koduru in Andhra Pradesh, the young and the old get together every day around an ‘amphitheatre’ where they teach, do theatre, recite poems and sing hymns. a local dentist launched this project under a thatched roof and named it Leela (Library, Education, Environment, Language and Arts).

Such schools and learning centres are increasing in India. Alternative schools are child-centric, and are based on the concept where each child progresses at his or her pace, sans any pressure or comparison. It is to study and document such schools in the remote pockets of India that C Suriyaprakash and Steffan Ajay set off on a journey from Coimbatore across the length and breadth of the country. They call their project ‘Child First Curriculum Next’.

What is ‘Child First Curriculum Next’ project?
  • A team is driving for across 9,000 kilometres through the hinterlands of India visiting nearly 20 alternative education centres.
  • They are interviewing the founders, teachers and students to discover what makes the system work. They will be extensively documenting these discussions and interviews for processing and propagating later.

Their aim is to build an integral society that places the child first in all actions. “We should provide an ecosystem where our children learn and grow in a space of integrity, justice, dignity, inclusivity and freedom,”says Suriyaprakash. This, he says, calls for a fundamental systemic shifts in education, health and environment.

Twenty days into their tour, that briefly touched Visakhapatnam, their faith in the alternative education system has only strengthened further. From Mysuru, Pune and Mumbai to Surat, Udaipur, Suri and Koduru – they found that every region had a unique story of learning. They visited 18 centres so far where pioneering educationists are working with learning systems which are child-centric.

In Mumbai, for instance, an initiative called Leap For Word has transformed the lives of many children through their English Literacy Programme. Built on a Translation Algorithm, the programme enables teachers from government and regional language schools to teach English in their mother-tongue and develop reading, comprehension and sentence structuring in their students. “The highlight of the initiative is that the child is not drilled to write ‘ABC’ first. But it effectively integrates regional language tools to break the language down into a series of concepts,” explains Suriyaprakash.

Speaking about Ahmedabad’s Riverside School, Ajay says, “Their approach to learning is embedded in common sense. It is not content based. Here children are encouraged to learn through natural and practical processes.”

A common link in these learning centres is that they all focus on the child first. Also, the number of hours spent inside classrooms is less. Children were encouraged to explore their own interests. “The formative years of a child influence their personality. We want to appeal to and spread awareness among the stakeholders – parents, educators and managements – and create a knowledge exchange between alternative learning centres and mainstream schools,” says Suriyaprakash, the managing trustee of Child First Society, a Coimbatore-based organisation that initiated the ‘Child First Curriculum Next’ project.

Where the world is a school
  • Alternative Education System is an umbrella term used for schools that typically veer away from the conventional methods of teaching. A contrast to the traditional mainstream education system, in these schools lessons are no longer bound within four walls of a classroom.
  • Practitioners of alternative learning believe that schools should not just be a space for academic excellence.
  • It needs to be a place which is seen as an art of nurturing the physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the child.

These centres are still only “islands” of knowledge, says Suriyaprakash. But working on this project has floated some hope as many parents have started looking beyond the walls of conventional classrooms for their children. One of the reasons for the shift is their disillusionment with mainstream classrooms, where a big group of children are educated in the same way, despite the fact that every child is unique. One size does not fit all, say Suriyaprakash and Ajay.

“It cannot be emphasised enough that children can experience the same schools very differently from each other. So it makes sense to create learning experiences that are specially customised to a child’s need, aptitude and natural inclination. This is why we need to create a knowledge-sharing platform and let mainstream schools assimilate certain methods (if not all) of learning in their classrooms,” says Suriyaprakash.Child First Society will start working with schools in and around Coimbatore, before expanding to other centres in Tamil Nadu and eventually to other parts of India.

“Now that we have representative samples from each region, we plan to prepare a documentary of our own experiences and release it on the social media platform,” explains Ajay. The Child First Curriculum Next is aimed at radically transforming the education system which is currently obsessed with marks/grades and academic achievement. “In our current school system, the curriculum takes precedence and the child’s needs are pushed to the back burner. As a society, we have put the cart in front of the horse!,” declares Suriyaprakash.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 4:04:12 PM |

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